Pros: Unique narration. Great characters.
Death defies my expectations. Rather than the cold, silent, ruthless individual in a dark hooded cape with a giant sickle, he’s compassionate, thoughtful and frequently merciful. He’s also strangely compelled to tell a story, entitled The Book Thief.
He meets our title character, Liesel Meminger, while her brother is dying on the train. Collecting the boy’s soul – as is his duty – Death is intrigued by the earnest and stoic ten year old girl. Liesel is on her way to a foster home near Munich in 1939 as her parents – both accused communists – have been sent away during the build up of World War II.
As the war plays out, Death is busier than usual, but he keeps track of Liesel and watches as she adjusts to a new life with the Hubermanns – the strict Rosa and the kind hearted Hans – who’ve taken her in to boost their income while they struggle in the wartime economy.
Liesel struggles to make friends, but she gradually grows braver and learns to fend for herself in her poor neighborhood, helping her foster mom with the neighbor’s laundry, playing soccer with the tough boys and stealing apples from the nearby orchards. She also develops an obsession with books of any type, using them as a way to escape from her surroundings. Given her impoverished circumstances she resorts to stealing one book at a time, slowly accumulating a small library, treasuring each volume and reading with her dad every night.
Author Markus Zusak creates a remarkable character in Liesel. Her strength, passion and maturity grow throughout and make for a truly memorable reading experience. He also builds a diverse supporting cast, including cursing Mama, accordion playing Papa, Jesse Owen fanatic and best friend Rudy Steiner and Max the Jewish refugee.
While the story starts out quietly, allowing the reader to grow accustomed to the strange experience of Death as omniscient narrator, Zusak gradually creates increasing tension that had me flying through the pages. As always, World War II, for all its horrors, is a source for great drama and the author makes the most of it, wrapping tragedy, passion, love, loyalty and injustice into a tightly told saga.
In the end, it’s clear that Death has great respect for our teen age heroine, who somehow manages to overcome repeated heartbreak and daunting adversity without losing her spirit. While it’s not the kind of book I typically choose, I found Zusak’s portrayal of Liesel to be surprisingly moving. Both riveting and poignant, The Book Thief is strongly recommended for all readers, teen and older.