“Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also”, wrote Heinrich Heine, a German author. He wrote this more than a century before Hitler seized power, so his words proved prophetic. Ironically, his own works were targeted by Nazis in their book burning ceremonies. It is at one such event that the Book Thief steals her second book - saving it from the flames. Leisel, the eponymous Book Thief, is a 9 year old girl at the beginning of the story, and though she can barely read at first, her love for books grows with time. Its very easy to like Leisel. After all, if we didn’t like books as much as she does, we’d probably be doing something other than reading a somewhat obscure book. We can understand that in her situation, we would probably resort to thievery to get our fix - and that forms a bond between us and her.
The story’s narrator is an unusual choice - Death. He (/She/It) appears to be omniscient - knowing what has happened and what will happen to each of the characters. It is later revealed that he’s narrating the story years after it took place, for he was too busy during World War II to spend long periods of time observing a little town on the outskirts of Munich. While he performs the job of collecting the souls of the deceased and placing them “on the conveyor belt of eternity”, the usual role for Death, he differs in other respects. He does not relish his job, and regrets it when he has to take a soul before its time(“It kills me sometimes, how people die.” ). He tries to present a human side to the reader and even tries to make us like him, assuring as that he “can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s.” In the end, he is telling us the story because he can’t understand humans at all, and is trying to make sense of them.
With Death as the narrator and the Book Thief as the focal point, the book tells the tale of the people who live in a small corner of Germany as the War rages around them. They sacrifices they have to make and the hardships they must put up with are described in detail. They have to deal with rationing of food, lack of employment, the demands of the Nazi Party. The younger people are compelled to attend Hitler Youth meetings and school, though it is not clear which is worse. Most of the folk, be it younger or older, just try to get by during the difficult years while looking for small victories here and there. For Liesel, that means stealing and reading books. For her best friend Rudy Steiner, it is emulating his hero Jesse Owens. For others, it is just staying alive. I found it was a fresh perspective of a war that I’ve read about a lot about, but only about the battles that were fought in various theatres.
The town, Molching, is also situated near the concentration camp in Dachau, so we get a glimpse of how Jews were treated in the years leading up to the War and during the War itself. Of course, the townspeople did not know the true extent of the crimes committed in the camps, but for better or worse, those parts are described by Death, who is always present whenever someone dies.
Zusak is a gifted writer who has written a wonderful book. In my opinion, this book will be considered a classic in the years to come.
Note: I read the review of this book in 2006 in the New York Times that impressed me a lot. However, I did not read it then because I couldn’t find a copy of it and soon forgot about it. When I heard of this book again a few days ago, I decided to read it with no further delay lest I forget again. I downloaded the book off the internet, and finished it soon after. In some ways, I feel a kinship with Liesel because I’m a book thief too.
Here is a link to the review in the NYT - (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/27/books/27masl.html). Its much better than what I can do at present; definitely worth a read.