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The Book Thief    by Markus Zusak order for
Book Thief
by Markus Zusak
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2006 (2006)
Hardcover, CD
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

I chose to read this book because of the title, the subject matter, and the eloquence of the award-winning author of I Am the Messenger. Markus Zusak explains his reasons for writing The Book Thief thus - 'The idea of a book stealer was in my head ... I thought about writing of the things my parents had seen while growing up in Nazi Germany and Austria ... I thought about the importance of words in that time, and what they were able to make people believe and do.'

The Prologue gives a unique perspective from the story's narrator - 'a mountain range of rubble in which our narrator Death - the gatherer of souls introduces: 'himself - the colors - and the book thief'.' Leading into the first chapter, Death states, 'First the colors red, white, black on top of each other- the Nazi symbol. Then the humans. That's usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try. Here is a small fact ... You are going to die. Does this worry you? I urge you - don't be afraid. I'm nothing if not fair'.

Awareness of death came early to nine-year old Liesel Meminger in 1939, when her six-year-old brother died en route to foster parents, Papa (Hans) and Mama (Rosa) Hubermann on Himmel Street in Molching, just outside of Munich, Germany. All of them struggle to survive during World War II, as Papa continues his painting business and plays his accordion at a local tavern for a stipend. Rosa washes and irons laundry for wealthy families. Liesel's first steal (one of fourteen which will bring her solace during the days ahead) is dropped by a grounds worker, as Death observes: 'I was just about to leave when I found her kneeling there. A mountain range of rubble was written, designed, erected around her. She was clutching at a book ... entitled 'The Gravedigger's Handbook'.'

After he hears her nightmare screams, Papa teaches Liesel to read during the late night hours, and comforts her. When Liesel tends to the laundry route on her own, she is invited into the vast library of the mayor's reclusive wife, Frau Ilsa Hermann to read from the large collection. Liesel steals more books from this library, and another from the bonfire on the Führer's birthday. Liesel discovers the power of words, the power of reading, then the ability to write a book about her life and her loved ones during these anguished times - 'When she came to write her story, she would wonder exactly when the books and the words started to mean not just something, but everything.'

Liesel overhears many references to they, and eventually understands that they are the Germans led by the fanatical Führer. It is they who separated her from her biological mother, they caused the death of her brother, and they are persecuting the Jews. November 9th, 1938, Kristallnacht was a night of terror when the Nazis destroyed Jewish property. After the horrors of that night, and also the Great War when the Jew, Eric Vandenburg, died so Hans could live, Hans vowed not to give allegiance to Hitler. Visiting the Vandenburg family after WWI, Hans met a youngster named Max. In November 1940, when a young man appears on the doorstep of Himmler Street, Hans knows this is Max Vandenburg, seeking shelter, and seizes the opportunity to repay his debt.

The mood of the Hubermann's household changes. Liesel is told the truth about Hitler's war and the persecution of the Jews, and must keep secret Max's presence in the basement. Liesel and Max have much in common. She dreams of her dead brother and lost mother; he's haunted by memories of Kristallnacht, and the loss of his family in the harrowing aftermath. For her birthday, Max has nothing to give Liesel, so he paints white over pages of Mein Kampf, and writes an illustrated story for his friend, entitled 'The Standover Man', about being scared. Max and Liesel share a love of words, that leads to an understanding about the role words play in bravery and cowardice - 'The words on the wall looked on as the hidden Jew and the girl slept, hand to shoulder ... they breathed. German and Jewish lungs.'

Marcus Zusak crafts an unforgettable account of 'the ability of books to feed the soul', in which readers pause over expressions and declarations, as the action compels them forward. Death's asides provide a unique connection between the story's narrator and its characters. The Book Thief is not to be rushed, but absorbed slowly as a mesmerizing and memorable read against the backdrop of a frightening and destructive era. But this is about more than the power of words. It shows Liesel's confrontation with horrifying cruelty and discovery of kindness in unexpected places. It portrays Liesel providing distraction for those who huddle in the air-raid basement as she reads her books to them in installments. It reflects the emotional heights of Liesel's search for Max's face in the thousands of Jews paraded down the streets of Molching to Dachau - 'They shuffle along in a ragged column, selfhood fragmenting, destruction beckoning, with eyes 'the colour of agony'.' And it reveals Liesel's discovery of her writing talent as she sits in the basement to tell of her life, where Max once resided.

Although Death focuses on Liesel, her foster parents, and the Jewish fugitive, Death is overwhelmed by the souls to be collected from the concentration camps, gas chambers, soldiers on the battlefields, and civilians killed in air-raid bombings. The author gives the narrator the last, lingering words as Death confesses, 'I am haunted by humans'.

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