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Book cover of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Knopf Books for Young Readers: New York, 2016; originally published in 2005.

A snow-clad cemetery in Germany, a few months before World War II. A girl cannot believe her brother has just died, as she and her mother witness the burial. A black book drops to the snow without the owner’s knowledge. The girl picks it up and clings to it. Her debut in the career of book thievery. Some hours later, the girl and her mother go their separate ways. The girl goes to her new parents. She does not know where her mother is going.

Liesel Meminger (the aforementioned girl) is adopted by Hans and Rosa Hubermann of 33 Himmel Street. The Hubermanns are not rich. They decide to raise Liesel because they are getting an allowance for it. Despite this, Liesel could not have a better father than Hans Hubermann. Hans comes to Liesel’s room after her frequent nightmares and comforts her, or sometimes plays the accordion for her. The same cannot be said of Rosa. Though she loves Liesel, she is constantly addressing her as “pig,” often accompanied by a beating. Liesel soon adapts to life in Himmel Street, befriending Rudy Steiner, one of her neighbors. Liesel and Rudy play football with the other kids, go to school together, and also go on thieving adventures. (Their loot mostly consists of food and an occasional book.)

It is Hans who discovers Liesel’s first stolen book. (She was lucky it wasn’t Rosa!) Liesel never learned how to read and Hans has little education. Yet, they manage to finish the book, with Liesel learning how to read in the process. Perhaps these reading sessions develop a love for reading in Liesel. And perhaps this is the reason Liesel feels a compulsion to steal books.

The narrator of The Book Thief is Death. What does death have to do with a girl stealing books, you say? But the book is not just about that; it is also a story based in World War II Germany where death had the leading role. Death is not just an observer; he is as much a character as Liesel herself. Death is a wonderful narrator. Often, he includes his flashbacks and images of the future. His narration is also not dry and boring. Death can be funny; he can be friendly. In fact, he is more human than most people think.

During the Holocaust, propaganda was common. Hitler fooled the majority of Germans with his words: Germans only read books which were approved by the Nazis; the media was used to create the impression that Hitler was Germany’s savior; Nazis used media to convince people that Jews did not deserve to live. For this reason, the author puts a lot of emphasis on the power of words. Those who can tame words can gain a lot of power. Liesel, for instance, is one of these “word shakers.” By the end of the book, not only can Liesel read novels on her own, she has also started writing the story of her life. (A girl living under Nazi occupation, writing the story of her own life . . . That seems familiar.)

 The Book Thief is a bundle of themes. It is about “pure” Germans risking their lives to help Jews, the power of words, death, and war. However, unlike most Holocaust books, it does not focus primarily on Jewish characters. The Book Thief is unique because it presents us a rare perspective on living as a non- Jewish German in Nazi Germany. If you haven’t read The Book Thief, you are missing out on one of the best Holocaust books.

Ananda Bhaduri reviewer of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Ananda Bhaduri, 13
Guwahati, India