Markus Zusak: The Book Thief

Markus Zusak’s novel The Book Thief is one of the most brilliant and emotional books I’ve ever read. The book is narrated by the personification of Death, and tells the story of nine year old orphan Liesel Meminger in World War II era Germany. It’s like Anne Frank Meets Joe Black. After the tragic death of her brother, Liesel finds comfort in stealing books – at first simply to possess them since she is unable to read. The morbid presence of the sarcastic and poetic Death foreshadows the novel’s journey from playfully poignant tales of Liesel’s book thievery to heartbreaking sorrows as the Nazi empire’s terror invades Liesel’s personal life.

While it is technically and inaccurately classified as Teen Fiction, The Book Thief deals with very adult themes and – unlike the inferior, more popular Twilight series – features fully developed characters wrapped in intelligent and poetic prose.

When her mother abandons her, Liesel is taken in by a German foster family composed of an angelic, doting accordion-playing father and a seemingly cruel mother. Liesel soon falls in with a misfit band of neighborhood thieves, which includes her sometimes nemesis and eventual best friend Rudy. Liesel’s kindhearted foster father begins to teach her to read using the very books she has stolen, including The Gravediggers Handbook she first found half buried near her brother’s grave.

As the years pass and the war rages, Liesel’s personal tragedies are overshadowed by the horror of the war and her family begins harboring Jewish refugee Max in their basement. Max evolves from the secret Liesel must keep to a dear friend who – along with the reclusive wife of the town’s mayor – comes to understand and cultivate young Liesel’s love of literature. One of the many interesting things about the book is the actual comic that Max draws for Liesel, which he creates by painting white over pages torn from Hitler’s Mein Kampf and drawing his own story.

I want to encourage everyone to read this extraordinary book, so I will avoid plot spoilers. But there are three extremely emotional scenes toward the end of the novel that nearly had me in tears of sorrow as well as joy. The characters and story are so well crafted and mesmeric that Zusak’s innovative use of prose and typeset are just the icing on an already beautifully delicious cake.

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