Book Review: The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

As we take the time to celebrate and honor a man who displayed such great power to change lives through words, I thought I would note the flip side of that. Well perhaps not so much a flip side, as a display of how words can be, and often have been, used to get people to do very bad things as well.

I recently completed The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, my first full read of 2014. Set against the backdrop of World-War-Two era Germany, it is a story about a family that tried to buck the odds and paid dearly for it.

On beginning the book, it quickly becomes clear that Death is the story’s narrator and a pretty central character to the tale. Another central character is Liesel, a 9-year-old kid who has experienced monumental tragedy that causes her to leave her biological family and move in with an adoptive one.

As Liesel ages, from the late 30’s till the mid 40’s, she encounters a boy of her own age whom she befriends. They grow together, experiencing the Hitler Youth, life on the poorer side of a Munich suburb, and eventually, scary air raids that they and their families must work to survive.

Somewhat accidentally, Liesel discovers that a good way to keep herself sane is to sink into the pages of a story. More, as the novel’s title suggests, she ends up stealing quite a few books from a number of places. This activity bonds her both to her adoptive father, as he works to help her learn to read during the long nights after her bad dreams, and to the mayor’s wife, who has experienced her share of tragedy and soon comes to enjoy allowing Liesel to partake of her library.

The most interesting part of the tale begins when a Jew with ties to Liesel’s new family calls in a favor in order to be hidden from the Germans. He takes up residence in the basement, where he teaches her and them many lessons about life and how fleeting it can be.

I found this to be a good read. It is organized and titled as a children’s book might be, with a lot of illustrations to accompany the text, which help to give depth to the words contained therein. I wouldn’t say that it is for younger children though, as there is a bit of strong language, and certainly the concepts can be heavy.

But it can really serve as an initial demonstration to someone old enough to handle its content of the good and ugly of human nature. For it shows, much as Dr. King’s life has, that it is more important to live a life of character than of length: to be willing to stand up for what one believes even when doing so can have dire consequences. That was my biggest takeaway from this book. Highly recommended.

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