Why did it take me over a year between starting this book and finishing it? I do not have a good explanation for this. I was either too busy or I was wary of reading a book narrated by death; perhaps afraid of the inevitable ensuing existential angst. Such an excuse now seems silly. This book is, yes, about death, its ubiquity during a horrible time in history, about pain and suffering, but it is also not really about death. Death does not write about itself an awful lot. It is fascinated by humans, their lives, what they do to get by, survive and help one another. World War 2 is a time of despair and a display of the very worst humans can do, but also a place where humans show both their best sides too.
A place where words are used in powerful ways, both to cajole people via rhetoric and fear into a belief system they don’t necessarily support, but also to act as a way to stay human.
Liesel, the Book Thief, gets sent to live with foster parents, the Hubermanns, in small-town Nazi Germany after being sent away from her communist parents and losing her brother to the narrator itself. She has already, by this point, stolen a book. Her foster father, Hans, who plays the accordion and smokes roll-ups, teaches her to read and their relationship is built around this sharing of words and stories. We follow Liesel, her family and her community through the years before the war and see how things change for them. From relative peace time to full on war time.
Things are fairly ordinary for Liesel for a time. She plays football in the street with other children. She helps her stepmother with the laundry that she does for wealthy families. She befriends a boy named Rudy and they join a gang that steals things. Liesel steals books and reads books.
Then her foster family end up taking in and hiding a Jew. It is at this point that the characters really come into their own. Liesel’s development as a thoughtful and fearless young woman is really cemented by her friendship with Max. Rosa, Liesel’s stepmother, who is foul-mouthed and obnoxious at first, proves herself as a woman of strength and integrity, and Hans proves the same about himself (as we had already suspected). Details about Max really add to the sense of tragedy at the loss of his previous life as a free man. He lives in the Hubermann’s basement, and we see flickers of the man he used to be; a creative, spirited person reduced to living in permanent darkness. His and Liesel’s friendship is based on the sharing of stories and creativity that cannot be stifled. The book that he writes for Liesel on painted-over copies of Mein Kampf is incredibly touching and finds hope in friendship and words. I loved that Liesel reads him stories and steals newspapers for him.It is obvious that living such a life makes Max feel dehumanised and that the words that Liesel brings him give him back some humanity.
This, I feel, is the central theme of The Book Thief. That stories and words are central to the human experience. They occur just about everywhere that humans exist. You can take away a person’s liberty and freedom, but their stories persist.
The Book Thief is not a happy book by any means; however the richness of the storytelling and the way the characters are drawn suggests that death has a surprising fondness for humans. In this sense, The Book Thief is a life-affirming book human resilience during a terrible time. It is also unlike anything I’ve ever read, in terms of narration, layout and format. I would rarely say that I would recommend a book to anyone, but this may be one of those rare occasions.