When death has a story to tell, you listen.
We are introduced to Death-as-a-storyteller at the beginning of Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief”. This is no Grim Reaper but a kinder, gentler Death, who has sympathy for the souls he takes away. As Death himself puts it, “I can be Amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s.”
This book isn’t about Death, it’s about death, it’s about 1939, Nazi Germany. It’s about how the country is holding its breath. But principally, it’s about Liesel Meminger, whose little brother dies and her mom leaves her with her foster parents in a dismal town of Munich.
Her foster father, Hans Hubermann, the implausibly saintly man, who beautifully plays the accordion and also taught Liesel to read and write in the dark of the night.
And her foster mom, Rosa Hubermann, who beats Liesel, and uses foul language, and refers to her husband and foster daughter as ‘filthy pigs’. But still, she cares for Liesel, and as Death eventually tells us, “She was a good woman for a crisis.”
Liesel finds ways of coping with her losses. She becomes a thief. She commits her first crime at the brother’s funeral when she steals “The Grave Digger’s Handbook”. While she sometimes joins a gang to steal food and stuff, her passion is only for books. She doesn’t care if it’s a good book or a bad book, she just cares for the book.
The story appears a bit slow until Max Vandenburg, a Jewish boxer, arrives at the Hubermann’s doorstep. It turns out that Hans’s accordion is actually a debt to Erik Vandenburg, Max’s father, a friend who saved Hans’s life in the war. So when Max shows up at the Hubermann’s door, one of his first question to Hans is whether he still plays the accordion. Hans feels that the only way he can repay Erik is by helping Max to hide from the Nazis.
Max and Liesel become very good friends. They have much in common, their love for reading, for writing, for fighting. They both suffer from nightmares. While Liesel’s grief is not that complicated, she must live with her mother’s choices. Max must live with his own.
The power of words
Words and books hold tremendous value in ‘The Book Thief’. Various examples of how words connect people turn up throughout the novel. Learning the alphabets and creating words is how Liesel and Hans developed their deep bond. Liesel describing the outside weather to Max is what established the bond of friendship between them. The best gift Max gives Liesel is “The Word Shaker”, a story he writes for her. In it, he tells her that words are the strongest force there is, indicated by the fact the Hitler used the power of words to take over the world. The story narrates how Liesel uses her words to create a refuge for herself in the midst of Nazism, and how Max was able to find shelter in her words as well.
The Duality of Humans
Everything in Nazi Germany is upside down. Sounds are seen, visions are tasted, death has a heart, winners lose, and the chance you got for survival is maybe in a concentration camp.
The book shows a varying amount of people’s kindness and cruelty. There were small acts of kindness like Ilsa Hermann inviting Liesel to her library and Rudy giving his teddy bear to the dying pilot. The more dramatic act of kindness was Hubermann’s hiding and caring for Max, making him feel like a part of their family. Meanwhile, the concentration camps lingering unseen in the background is the most extreme example of cruelty.
Liesel and her Books
Liesel developed from a powerless girl to a more mature person in due course of the book. Her first encounter with books comes at her brother’s funeral, where she steals a book but is unable to read it and feels powerless at the time. But when Hans teaches her how to read and write, she gains power over the books, and her character also develops. This development is highlighted by her friendship with Max. She began reading to him as a way to comfort him. Eventually, books became a shelter for Liesel, a way to feel in control. Max sums up Liesel’s use of books as a refuge in the story, ‘The Word Shaker’. Liesel began reading to people to give them some comfort when they were all trapped in the bomb shelter during the airstrikes.
In the end, it’s her book, that in a way saved her life when she was working on it in the basement when the bombs fell on Himmel Street.
“The Book Thief” gives us hope. Hope in the form of Liesel, who grows into a wonderful and generous person despite the sufferings all around her, who becomes a human even Death loves.
This is a kind of book that can be life-changing. It is unsettling and unsentimental, yet poetic. It’s like a tragedy that runs through the reader’s mind like a black-and-white movie. But even then “The Book Thief” manages to offer us a believable hard-won hope.
Some Heart Touching Quotes
“The only thing worse than a boy who hates you: a boy that loves you.”
“Like most misery, it started with apparent happiness.”
“It kills me sometimes, how people die.”
“Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day.”
“Even death has a heart.”
“If only she could be so oblivious again, to feel such love without knowing it, mistaking it for laughter. ”
“She was saying goodbye and she didn’t even know it.”
“A small fact:
You are going to die….does this worry you?”
“I have to say that although it broke my heart, I was, and still am, glad I was there.”
“Somewhere, far down, there was an itch in his heart, but he made it a point not to scratch it. He was afraid of what might come leaking out.”
“People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and ends, but to me it’s quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors. Waxy yellows, cloud-spot blues. Murky darkness. In my line of work, I make it a point to notice them.”
“One was a book thief. The other stole the sky.”
“Together, they would watch everything that was so carefully planned collapse, and they would smile at the beauty of destruction.”