Few books have blown me away the way The Book Thief did. I’m not exaggerating the least bit when I tell you that this will go down as one of my all-time favorite books.
It’s a small story really, about, among other things:
* A girl
* Some words
* An accordionist
* Some fanatical Germans
* A Jewish fist fighter
* And quite a lot of thievery
The story moves through the years of 1930 to 1943, the Holocaust era. Death narrates the story of Leisel Meminger, a young German girl being adopted by the Hubermann family in Himmel Street.
She, along with her brother and mother were on their way to the Hubermann family when her brother died. In the graveyard where they buried her brother, she steals a book she finds peeking under the snow–The Gravedigger’s Handbook. She took it not minding the fact that she couldn’t read.
When she arrived in the Hubermann home, her new family, she builds a special bond with her father, Hans. She loves her mother as well, Rosa, though she is not the typical warm, caring and nurturing mother a young girl would want to have. The Hubermann family is by no means well-off. They were living off rations, doing other people’s laundry, and whatnot. But what they lacked in food or conveniences, they made up with love, hardwork and humanity.
Leisel goes on to steal more books with her best friend Rudy and eventually, through perseverance and her foster dad’s dedication, Leisel learns to read, appreciate words and eventually trust on its power. She stole mostly from Ilsa Hermann, the mayor’s wife.
Already struggling with poverty and the sheer difficulty of the time, Leisel’s family takes in a Jewish fist-fighter named Max, someone from his father’s past. They hid the Jew in their basement, fed him, clothed him and bathed him. During the time, it was such a risk. It was almost like they were asking to be killed by the Germans, but Leisel’s father kept his word and protected Max at all cost.
Leisel also builds a special bond with Max, a connection particularly bonded by words. Their similarities and differences bring them together, which I think spurred something that was definitely more than a friendship, but not really romantic (You’ll get my point when you read the novel). Max eventually left the Hubermann household.
She finds Max once more, but she finds him in the most dreadful of situations, marching on the street. The group of Jews were frail and weak, and were being led by a bunch of vicious Germans. This scene kicked off Leisel’s struggle with words. Aware of Mein Kampf, Leisel believed that it was through Hitler’s words that hate spread, that suffering escalated, that Max was in that situation, and that his father was taken away to fight for Hitler. But from that hate, she was able to write the story of her life. She writes these words on a blank book give to her by Ilsa Hermann, who was aware that Leisel has been stealing her books. Ilsa encourages Leisel to write, seeing as she could do something tangible, meaningful with her love for words.
An unsuspecting air raid killed everyone in Hummel Street one night. Although each family was taught the drill, they were only taught to run and hide when a siren is set off. That night, Leisel was writing in their basement, sparing her from death. Leisel has already lost a family once, and it’s so sad to read through the pages and imagine this little girl alone once more. In one night, she lost everyone, everything. Again.
“She leaned down and looked at his lifeless face and Leisel kissed her best friend, Rudy Steiner, soft and true on his lips. He tasted dusty and sweet. He tasted like regret in the shadows of trees and in the glow of the anarchist’s suit collection. She kissed him long and soft, and when she pulled herself away, she touched his mouth with her fingers…She did not say goodbye. She was incapable, and after a few more minutes at his side, she was able to tear herself from the ground. It amazes me what humans can do, even when streams are flowing down their faces and they stagger on…”
What I love about this book is that it departs from the usual. It tells the unconventional story of a German family living through the horrors of that era. It’s a welcome change to read about the possibility that maybe, just maybe not all Germans at the time were what we knew them to be–hard, brutal, violent. That perhaps, they were also mere victims of someone’s incessant need for power.
“I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”
Through this book, one sees both the harshness and beauty of people. The Book Thief also offers a memorable take on how a child perceives bravery. Further, letting Death (such an irony) relive the memories of the people he took away is a moving facet of the novel. I find it interesting that Markus did not antagonize Death. He used Death as vehicle, someone performimng a mere duty. Here, Death simply collected the result of men’s violence.
“It kills me sometimes, how people die.” – Death
The Book Thief is a truly fascinating read. Not everybody will remember a novel of this kind in three or five years, but it will surely move you well enough to appreciate the often overlooked value of words.
The last line written by Leisel Meminger in her book:
“I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”