I like this book. It reminds me of the Diary of Anne Frank, though told from a third person perpective by Death (aka the Grim Reaper) himself.

Some booksellers categorise this under Young Adults, and some under Adults. But regardless, it is something worth reading. A beautiful story of a young girl, the difficult circumstances of war and the strength of love and kindness to pull us all through times of adversity.

The story begins in 1939. It is winter and all is white. Nine-year-old Liesel Meminger, our protagonist is on a train with her mother and little brother traveling towards Munich … and Death comes a-visiting.

He sees the family of three on the train. Six-year-old Werner is coughing and Death stops to visit – he collects a soul, leaving only two to continue the journey. Outside Munich, where the train stops (the driver does not know what to do with the body of the little boy on board), Liesel and her mother lay Werner to rest. As the gravediggers dig through the snow, one of them drops a book – The Gravedigger’s Handbook, which Liesel steals despite not being able to read. Thus bringing about her name and the title of the book, and a touching story of life in wartime Germany and in particular, on Himmel Street in the small town of Molching where Liesel is sent to live with foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann for the duration of the war.

The Book Thief is rich with imagery which Zusak manages to convey brilliantly and at the right pace. As Death says at the beginning of the book:-

“It’s just 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.”

Branded a “Kommunist” by the Nazis and unable to afford the care of her daughter, Liesel’s mother leaves her with the Hubermanns, who raise her as their own. Rosa Hubermann tells Liesel to call her Mama and Hans, Papa. She in turn (and in much loving endearment), calls Liesel a “Saumensch” or pig. Rosa is full of swearing and bluster, and Hans the opposite – caring, patient and loving. He teaches Liesel how to read and together they read in the wee hours of the morning when all is quiet and Rosa asleep. It is an inspiring tale, showing the determination of a girl under the worst of circumstances to learn the ability to read and to open up a world hitherto unknown to her – the world of books, and the beauty … and power of words.

It’s about kindness and understanding that overcomes State ideology and hatred. The Hubermanns repay a debt of gratitude by taking in a Jewish fistfighter by the name of Max Vanderburg, sheltering and hiding him in their basement, away from the prying eyes of fellow Germans on Himmel Street. Liesel is sworn to secrecy never to talk about this to anyone. A secret that had its roots in the first war in which Hans fought alongside Erik Vandenburg a comrade, friend, fellow German.. a Jewish man, before that notion made a German unworthy of citizenship, and to be regarded as sub-human.

Hans owes his life to Erik Vandenburg who had assigned Hans to a desk job while the rest, including Erik, went to the battlefield and were killed. He promises Erik’s widow that he will help them should they need him. The chance to keep this promise manifests itself with the appearance of Erik Vandenburg’s son, Max one night in the Hubermann’s living room.

With Hans, Max teaches Liesel how to read, and writes a book especially for her called “The Stand Over Man”. I thought these scenes were especially warm and touching. I imagined Liesel huddling downstairs in the basement, cold but smiling and reading with the man in hiding. It is a cruel world that drives people to live like this yet they struggle and survive, and hold on to the things that make us human.

As the book progresses, we see more of Liesel’s world. Just as Anne Frank had her “one true love” Peter Schiff, Liesel has Rudy Steiner, a friend and ‘partner in crime’ who goes along with her on her many stealing adventures, climbing over fences and into fruit orchards at first and then into the Mayor’s library to steal books.

In essence, The Book Thief is about our frailties; that stripped of our veneer, we are all the same; each one of us longing for the love and company of another to get us through one day at a time. From the scene where Hans Hubermann gives bread to a Jew who is being forced to march by German soldiers which results in him being whipped and sent off later to join the Reich’s war effort to the heartbreaking scene where Liesel is reunited with Max Vandenburg, who after leaving her house and missing for months, is found by Liesel in one of the marches through town of Jewish camp inmates – they hug eachother in the midst of the mass of marchers out of sight of the German soldiers: kindness and compassion are naturally within all of us. It has to be.

All in all, I enjoyed the book. It has been two weeks since I finished it (took me about 2 weeks, reading almost nightly for an hour or so before bed) and the story and characters remain fresh in my mind. I would recommend this as light reading though the subject matter has a lot to do with death and dying. Worth it. Out of 5, I give it a 3. Pace is just nice, not too slow. Story is moving and stays with you.

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