I’m not crazy about reading about World War II. I hate reading about concentration camps (I hate Night for this reason) because it literally makes me want to cry and break things. So reading about World War II in the voice of Death really wasn’t high on my list of literary priorities. My sister first introduced me to the book, raving about it and positively begging me to read it. I scoffed and put it off. Then, one night, she persuaded me to see the movie. “To cheer us up” after the disastrous and still traumatic How I Met Your Mother finale. That’s right: we watched a Holocaust film to cheer us up after the finale, but I digress. I am so happy I read The Book Thief (and saw the film, which was instrumental in persuading me). This is not your typical WWII novel.
It takes a deft hand to capture life in Hitler Germany. It’s a point of view not commonly shown, paling in comparison to the plight of the six million Jews who lost their lives, or to those who had to hide, wasting away, in basements and attics over Europe, or even to the heroic, watered-down story of American soldiers come to liberate Dachau, for instance. There are many artistic renditions of World War II, and there should be. Writing about tragedy, about war and evil, makes certain that we’ll never forget it and hopefully never repeat it. And that’s why I’m so glad this novel, written for young adults, is such a well-written gem. The war is told through the eyes of a young German girl, Liesel Meminger, and she’s a heroine for the ages.
She’s the novel’s book thief. In the beginning of the novel, Liesel is sent to a foster home on the outskirts of Munich. On the way there, her six-year-old brother dies. At his impromptu train-side funeral, Liesel, consumed with grief, hazily picks up a book the gravedigger’s apprentice accidentally drops. The Grave-Digger’s Handbook becomes Liesel’s souvenir of that awful day, and the link between her old life and her new.
She arrives in Munich on Himmel Street, meaning “heaven” in German. She meets her new mother and father, Rosa and Hans Hubermann. The first is a foul-mouthed, “wardrobe-shaped” woman who, despite her roughness, loves Liesel dearly. And the other is Hans, Liesel’s kind, accordion-playing new father who teaches her to read by night.
All of this story, set from 1939 to 1943, is narrated by Death, who is retelling the story from Liesel’s own handwritten account, which he found in the rubble in 1943 when Himmel Street is bombed to cinders. Death has connected emotionally to Liesel’s story, and as he reads her words and recounts the story to us, he remembers all of the people he met along the way, people whose souls he carried away as they died.
This is a different point of view not only because it portrays the emotional and political complexity of Hitler Germany, but also because it shows the paradoxes and complexity of human nature through the eyes of Death. The last line of the book displays the overarching theme of his narration: “I am haunted by humans,” he says. Because he sees such different shades: love, hate, cowardice, evil, strength, courage, foolishness, friendship, power, and all the myriad characteristics that make humans who we are, Death is held entranced by us. And for such a setting as World War II, there is no shortage of complex human behavior for Death to watch. Through his eyes, all the characters’ behavior comes alive in a way that makes you feel like you are also meeting mankind for the first time.
We see Hans Hubermann whipped raw by a Nazi soldier for daring to give bread to Jews being marched through Munich to Dachau. We see Liesel Meminger, twelve years old, yelling at the mayor’s wife for allowing herself to waste away due to grief. We see Rudy Steiner, a young boy, paint himself black and call himself Jesse Owens. We see Liesel Meminger clutching the face of the Jewish prisoner Max Vandenburg, whom the Hubermanns hid in their basement for months.
Liesel struggles with her morality and with her title of “book thief,” so called because she sneaks into the mayor’s house to take books from their well-stocked shelves. As she reads, she grows. And as she grows, she understands so much more about the world around her, contained in the evil and hypocrisy of Hitler and his Germany. Liesel is a girl who has learned to love words and then to hate them, as she understands that it was words that gave Hitler all the power he needed to exert evil on the world.
“I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right,” Liesel says. More than anything, this book is a tribute to the power of words and to the immense complexity of human nature. There are so many colors, and so many choices we make that change who we are.
“It’s probably fair to say that in all the years of Hitler’s reign, no person was able to serve the Führer as loyally as me. A human doesn’t have a heart like mine. The human heart is a line, whereas my own is a circle, and I have the endless ability to be in the right place at the right time. The consequence of this is that I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both. Still, they have one thing I envy. Humans, if nothing else, have the good sense to die.