80 pages • 2 hours readMarkus Zusak
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The Book Thief (December 2007) is a young adult novel by Australian author Markus Zusak. Other titles by Zusak include Underdogs (1999), I am the Messenger (2002), and Bridge of Clay (2018). All his works have received multiple literary prizes and reader’s choice awards from countries around the world.
When first published, The Book Thief became a #1 New York Times bestseller and was a nominee of PBS’s The Great American Read as one of America’s best-loved novels. It became a motion picture in 2013, starring Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. The novel is intended for readers 12 and up and is categorized as Teen and Young Adult Holocaust Historical Fiction and Teen and Young Adult Military Historical Fiction.
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Because the author’s heritage is German / Austrian, and his parents emigrated to Sydney during the 1950s, readers have speculated that The Book Thief might be a family biography. However, Zusak claims that he only borrowed from the tales his parents told about the war years in Germany.
The Book Thief is set in the Munich suburb of Molching, Germany, during the wartime years of 1939 to 1944. It is narrated from the omniscient perspective of Death, who tells the reader the tale of Liesel Meminger, an orphan who demonstrates an odd fascination with the written word and begins to steal books at the age of nine.
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By the end of the tale, the girl has written her own book, entitled The Book Thief, which falls into Death’s hands. He becomes enthralled with the narrative and presents it to the reader. In the process, he explores the themes of wartime mortality, the human paradox, and, above all else, the power of words.
In 1939, as nine-year-old Liesel Meminger is traveling by train with her mother and younger brother to meet their new foster family, her brother dies unexpectedly. After his burial, Liesel steals a book she sees sticking out of the snow in the graveyard: The Grave Digger’s Handbook. She keeps it with her always after she’s entrusted to the care of kindly Hans Hubermann and his brusque wife, Rosa.
At first, Liesel suffers from nightmares about her dead brother, but Hans comforts her. Over time, she adjusts to life in Molching, joins the local soccer team, becomes friends with a boy named Rudy Steiner, and helps Rosa with her laundry business.
Liesel’s attraction for books intensifies, and she steals several more volumes until the mayor’s wife, Frau Hermann, grants her access to the mansion’s library. The two strike up an odd friendship that nurtures Liesel’s love of words.
Despite the tense wartime atmosphere in Molching, the Hubermanns shelter a young Jewish man named Max in their basement. Disaster follows when Hans is drafted into the army, and Max is captured and marched off to the concentration camp at Dachau. When Liesel can no longer believe in the transformative power of words, she tears up one of the books in Frau Hermann’s library and vows never to come back to read such pretty lies.
Frau Hermann arrives at Liesel’s door with a blank bound notebook and encourages the girl to write her own life story. The woman says that words can heal as well as harm and cautions the girl never to give up believing in their power. Months later, while Liesel is working in the basement, putting the finishing touches to her autobiography, an air raid destroys the street where she lives. While all her family and friends are killed, Liesel’s writing inadvertently saves her life. As she’s being taken away to live with the Hermanns, she accidentally drops her book, and Death picks it up.
The Grim Reaper becomes fascinated by the contents that reveal both the worst and best of human behavior. Death never succeeds in reconciling the paradox. Liesel lives to a ripe old age and, when Death comes to collect her soul, he confesses to her, “I am haunted by humans” (173).
All page number citations are taken from the 2007 Kindle edition of this book.
By Markus Zusak