I suffered a personal loss while reading Marcus Zusak’s “The Book Thief” – my husband and I buried our beloved dog, who passed away last month after a long illness – so I’m sadly familiar with how our minds struggle to find comfort and make sense out of tragedy. “The Book Thief” doesn’t help the devastating legacy of Nazi Germany make any more sense, but it does find poetry in the fragments. Zusak’s depiction of Death gathering up souls – gently, forlornly, even tenderly – is a lovely image to hold onto in times of grief.
Death is the immortal, omniscient narrator of the novel, but the story focuses mainly on a young girl, Liesel Meminger, who is sent to live with a foster family after her little brother dies. I’m guessing that the youth of the protagonist is the main reason the Library of Congress classifies “The Book Thief” as Juvenile Fiction, but overall, it’s hard for me to consider this a young-adult novel. Most YA novels stick with the same main character throughout, but “The Book Thief” periodically takes us away from Liesel to focus on other characters’ – including some adults’ – experiences. The violence is not terribly graphic, but definitely present – given the wartime setting, it would be strange if it weren’t – and at times very disturbing.
Still, I can see this book appealing to younger readers, especially with Death’s frequent asides – short snippets and facts set off from the main text in bold – that seem designed to hold the attention of a generation used to getting everything in bite-size texts and tweets. The asides didn’t bother me, but I didn’t think they added much either, other than as humorous tension-breakers when the plot gets extremely serious and sad.
To me, the real accomplishment of the novel, aside from its beautiful descriptions, is how Zusak illuminates the power of books to heal emotional wounds. This theme is beautifully represented in the relationships among Liesel, her foster father Hans, and Max, a Jewish refugee that the family hides. Their interactions are touching and profound without being overly sentimental. Liesel’s evolution, from an illiterate girl (who nonetheless feels compelled to steal books) into an accomplished reader and an author in her own right, illustrates how the love of reading leads to the urge to write one’s own story – and how the act of writing can be a life-saving palliative against misery and despair.