(I say "unofficial" because The Book Thief isn't really part of the book club's official roster of books to be discussed this year. So basically it just served as an excuse for us to read a book, gather around to talk about it, and talk about it over good food. Oh, and usually, unofficial discussions happen during a weeknight. But looking back, with the kind of preparation that went with it, i.e., the bookmarks, the loot bags, the carefully thought-of discussion questions, and the number of members who attended, the discussion might as well have been an official one. This "unofficial" thing would probably need another post.)
Anyway, the novel is really difficult not to like. Zusak has a character, 11-year-old Liesel Meminger, who comes of age during the turbulent period in Germany during World War II. She has communist parents, and she was set up for adoption by this German couple, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. You just know that things won't turn up all daisies and sunshine for the characters. How can it? You're in Nazi Germany. And add the fact that the couple and Liesel hide a Jew in their basement. There are air raids often, too. We just know how indiscriminate bombs are as killing tools.
As I said, The Book Thief is a novel that's so easy to like. I can list a few points why this is so. First, Liesel is a bibliophile. Well, she isn't technically one at the start of the novel. She didn't even know how to read. But when she does, she develops a passion for the printed word. So much this passion is that she sometimes resorts to stealing books.
The novel also has a very strong anti-war message. Yes, we've all read how war has devastating effects on the parties involved in one. But Zusak manages to show us how war can affect families. And that, sometimes, people are forced to do things just to survive during wartime. We read about how difficult it is to find food, to get paid work, and to feel safe. We learn how one act of compassion can be interpreted as being a traitor to the nation's cause. We see how families are oftentimes separated and displaced. We see how it's all terrible, and we are made to feel uncomfortable. There's no hint of romanticizing any of these unfortunate scenarios in Zusak's novel.
The Book Thief is also about keeping promises. Hans owes his life to a Jew who somehow saved him during the first world war. And that Jew's son, Max, goes to the Hubermann household to escape the Nazi persecution. Hans never thinks twice about helping the boy, even though he's putting himself and his family at risk.
There's a bit of a romance going on between Liesel and a golden-haired boy named Rudy Steiner. The scene where Liesel, now 14 years old, finally realizes that she loves Rudy so much is just heartbreaking. I've always thought about an alternate scenario wherein Liesel agrees to be kissed by Rudy at the start of the novel. But that would not show the funny and heartwarming dynamic between Liesel and Rudy when they were just friends. In the end, the shy, bookish, and obedient girl falls for the rebel.
Oh, and the novel is narrated by Death, and what a glorious narrator he is. The novel presents Death as someone just doing his job. The war has kept him busy, and he's just your everyday omniscient being going about his business. He can be funny, amoral, and very objective with the things going on around him. But sometimes, Death appears to be someone capable of feeling and states that, sometimes, humans confuse him. He oftentimes spills the beans early in the chapters (who will die, what will happen in the end, etc.) but I didn't really mind these spoilery bits. For me, it was all about the story—how it will unravel in the book's 500+ pages.
I like The Book Thief. I probably didn't like it as much other people did. I'd still recommend it to young adults and adults alike. There's something in it for everyone. I guess what turned me off a bit was the idea that the novel was trying to be a very dramatic work, one that sets out from the start to elicit tears in the reader. The novel succeeds on this aspect though, but I feel that some of the scenes border on the overly melodramatic.
Read this book if:
- You love YA historical fiction.
- You're both fascinated and horrified by this terrible period in our history.
- You know that there is indeed a being named Death.