In this story narrated by Death, 9 year old Liesel Meminger is traveling to Molching, a fictional town near Munich, with her mother and 8 year old brother. The children are going to live with foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. On the way, Liesel’s brother dies and at his graveside, she steals her first book, The Grave Digger’s Handbook.
Liesel doesn’t adjust to her new home very quickly, and she is haunted by nightmares about her brother. Hans Hubermann, a kind painter/accordion player, sits up with her after the nightmares and eventually begins to teach Liesel how to read. She also makes friends with the neighborhood kids, especially Rudy Steiner, who is quite in love with her.
Liesel eventually adjusts to life in Moching, attending school, and helping Rosa Hubermann pick up and deliver the washing she does for wealthy customers. Unfortunately, she continues to experience nightmares, but her reading also improves with the help of Hans.
At a fire fueled mainly by books to honor the Hitler’s birthday, Liesel realizes for the first time that she is in foster care because her parents were communists. And it is from the bonfire that Liesel steals her second book, The Shoulder Shrug. But this time she is recognized by the mayor’s wife, Ilsa Hermann, one of Rosa Hubermann’s customers. The theft results in an invitation come over to the mayor’s home and read in his vast collection of books. This library is the scene of Liesel’s third act of book thievery, carried out in anger after the mayor claims they should no long have their washing and ironing done by Rosa when so many other people are suffering.
As Jews are being sent to concentration camps in greater and greater numbers, Hans agrees to hide 24 year old Max Vandenburg, son of an old Jewish Army friend from World War I, who saved his life. Max and Liesel become good friends, but when Hans offers a piece of bread to a Jew being marched to Dachau, Max is forced to leave because of fear the Gestapo with come search the Hubermann house. Much later, Liesel sees Max being marched with other Jews to Dachau. Liesel is whipped by a Nazi guard for approaching Max in the crowd of Jews.
In despair, Liesel breaks into the mayor’s library and destroys a book: Soon, there is nothing but scraps of words littered all around her. Words, she realizes, have been used so wrongly to empower the Führer:
The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Führer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or wordly tricks to make up feel better. What good were the words? (pg 521)Ironically, it is the mayor’s depressed wife who convinces Liesel to begin writing, to change the words and make them right again. In the basement where she learned to read, Liesel begins to write a story called The Book Thief.
The novel follows Liesel from a 9 year old who can’t read a single word to a 14 year old who realizes the true power of words. It is a cleverly constructed book in so many ways. For example, in the beginning, Death introduces the reader to Liesel Meminger through the use of color – representing the three times he saw her “in the flesh.” White for the snow on the ground the day her brother was buried. Then, black for the smoke from an allied plane that has crashed near Molching, and the death of the pilot witnessed by Rudy and Liesel. Lastly, red for the burning sky resulting from the bombing of Munich and surrounding areas, including Molching. Association through color - White, Black and Red – the colors of the Nazi flag place her squarely in Nazi Germany during the Second World War.
The Book Thief is a well-written book with well-developed characters. Death as the narrator is neither omniscient nor grim, and though he can often be both cynical and compassionate, he sums up mankind’s contradictory behavior quite simply: "So much good, so much evil," Death says of human nature. "Just add water." (pg 160)
I liked that the novel ultimately became its own irony. It is divided into 10 chapters, plus a prologue and an epilogue. Each chapter is named after a book that Liesel owned. When Liesel wrote her own version of The Book Thief, it was given the same form. Incidentally, the content of each of the chapter is also listed under its title. I think this is done so that we focus on why things are happening, not on what is happening.
This book is recommended for readers 12 and up.
This book was purchased for my personal library.
The Book Thief has been given the following well deserved honors:
2006 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (South East Asia & South Pacific)
2006 Horn Book Fanfare
2006 Kirkus Reviews Editor Choice Award
2006 School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
2006 Daniel Elliott Peace Award
2006 Publishers Weekly Best Children Book of the Year
2006 Booklist ChildrenEditors' Choice
2006 Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book
2007 Boeke Prize
2007 ALA Best Books for Young Adults
2007 Michael L. Printz Honor Book]
2007 Book Sense Book of the Year
2009 Pacific Northwest Young Readers Choice Master List
The Australian publisher Picador offers a very useful note for reading groups for The Book Thief
Scholastic also offers a teacher resource for The Book Thief
The Book Thief
Alfred A. Knopf
|NYT Children's Best Seller Sunday, September 25, 2011|