Death first meets Liesel Meminger when he comes to take her brother away, and he visits her again many times before he comes to claim her. Death doesn’t make a habit of observing the living, he is generally too busy – and never more so than in Nazi Germany. The book thief is an exception. She cannot be ignored.
“Where are my manners? I could introduce myself properly, but it’s not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A colour will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away.”
When I discovered that the narrator of our next book club selection was Death – and that the main character was a young girl – I was not looking forward to the read. I wanted something a little… well, easier. This just sounded like too much. Once again, I was glad to be proven wrong.
“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 Book Thief tells the story of Liesel, an eleven year old girl whose younger brother dies beside her on the train as they are being delivered to the home of foster parents by a mother who she will never see again. Liesel steals her first book at her brother’s funeral: The Grave Digger’s Handbook – A Twelve-Step Guide to Grave-Digging Success. With the help of her new foster-father, she learns to read with this strange muse, and goes on to liberate books from burnings and under-used libraries.
The Book Thief shows a less explored aspect of war history – that of a child growing up in Germany under the Nazi regime. A child whose family does not agree with Nazi principles, but is powerless to do anything about it. Liesel and her family live in Molching, a small town outside Munich, and on the road to Dachau. A parade of Jews on their way to the concentration camp is a common sight. Liesel must join the Hitler Youth. Her town is in constant threat of air raids. Life is a struggle, and yet children will be children.
“He was the crazy one who had painted himself black and defeated the world.
She was the book thief without the words.
Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain.”
Having had a year when I am disappointed by books far more often than I enjoy them, I found myself in the awkward position of describing a book narrated by Death as a “breath of fresh air.” The Book Thief covers dark subject matter, yet it is whimsical, fantastical and uplifting. Liesel is a plucky heroine of the Anne Shirley sort, always able to rise above her circumstances. Death is a surprisingly clever and astute narrator. Word-nerds will rejoice in the descriptions of a ‘soft, yellow-dressed afternoon’ or the aptly put “I am haunted by humans.”
Paperback: 576 pages
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers; Reprint edition (Sep 11 2007)