The Book Thief is set in WW2 Germany and it’s the story of Liesel, a nine-year old girl who has been sent to live with foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, on Himmel Street in Molching. It’s the story of Max Vandenburg , a Jew hiding in their cellar. It’s also the story of Rudy Steiner (who would like Leisel to kiss him) and of Ilsa Hermann, the mayor’s wife.
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This novel is narrated by death. It's a small story, about: a girl; an accordionist; some fanatical Germans; a Jewish fist fighter; and quite a lot of thievery.
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Death will visit the book thief three times.
So… A book about Nazi Germany that’s narrated by Death. Tasteless? Just a gimmick? Not at all. It gives the story an impartial observer who can give a broader context to WW2 than could be expected from a girl growing up in a suburb. It also enables the expectation to be set for the reader from the first chapter that this is not going to be a comfortable read - as Death says in the first chapter, “I witness the ones who are left behind, crumbling amongst the jigsaw puzzle of realization, despair and surprise. They have punctured hearts… It’s the story of one of those perpetual survivors – an expert at being left behind.”
Given when (and where) it’s set, it is only to be expected that this book is heartbreaking in places and it most certainly is. However, it’s not all doom and gloom and The Book Thief doesn’t easily fit into the “worthy WW2 read that will make you think” category. There are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments in the book and the main characters are certainly engaging. Leisel’s friend (and sometime partner in crime) Rudy Steiner is a delight and I defy anyone not to grin when reading the account of him painting himself black with coal and running around the local track in an effort to emulate his hero, Jesse James.
The originality of the layout gives The Book Thief a freshness that’s one of the book’s major assets. Max writes Liesel a book at one point, using material he has on hand, and the whitewashed text of Mein Kampf leaking through into the handwritten story of a man living in hiding gives his creation a poignancy that it could not have achieved in another way.
Having said that it’s not a worthy WW2 read , I would love to see it being used in schools and read alongside Anne Frank as a companion piece. I am sure GCSEs have moved on since “my day” but I am sure that a book like this would have stimulated debate in History, RE or English Lit as a pseudo-source material text. Yes, it’s a great read and kept me turning the pages (probably too quickly at the end) but it’s also a very thought provoking book .
The Book Thief has been marketed at both the teenage and adult market (depending where in the world you live) however this is a book that could, and should, be read by all ages. It manages to successfully combine being a page turner with providing plenty of food for thought and I can’t offer higher praise than that.
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Have tissues to hand.