The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: A Unique, Compelling Take on WWII that Trades Severity for Ingenuity

Every so often, a book comes along that takes the nation by storm. Not just within its generic audience, but throughout all subsets of readers: the literary, the YA crowd, those who enjoy popular fiction, and kids. Of course, Harry Potter is the default example of this sort of trend, but I tend to discredit that a bit considering how many now-adult readers came of age with the series. The best recent example I can think of is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, though I know that tends to select for older readers.

One such book to achieve this phenomenon situates itself chronologically between the other two titles I listed, and is, perhaps, more representative of a jack-of-all-trades piece of literature. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, originally published in 2006, is generally classified as a young adult novel, though you wouldn’t know it based on the scores of adults who claim to have read the tome. A World War II narrative with a twist, The Book Thief has been taught at high schools throughout the US, translated into over 40 languages, and still remains in the top ten of many bestseller lists to this day. Though it may slant toward a younger audience, there is no denying that Zusak’s work has amassed a following beyond even his own expectations. Though it fails to fully realize the darkness of its own setting, The Book Thief  makes for a gripping WWII narrative that speaks to our humanity in a time period where everyone’s chief concern was his own mortality.  

It is difficult to do anything novel in a story set in one of the most written-about eras in history. No matter your age, you’ve undoubtedly heard tales from that hellacious six-year period, whether they be about the plight of the Jewish people under Hitler or Japanese’ bombing of Pearl Harbor. So when we open the first pages of Zusak’s novel and find out the narrator is none other than Death himself, it comes as a bit of a refresher. Sure, it’s morbid as all hell, but its uniqueness assures us we aren’t going to get another run-of-the-mill, tired, WWII tale.

Death follows the life of Liesel Meminger, a German girl whose mother sends her away to foster care at the outset of the war due to personal burden. Liesel forms a strong bond with her foster father, Hans Hubermann, and spends much of her free time learning how to read. She develops a penchant for stealing books, an action on which Death, the narrator, becomes transfixed. Along the way, the Hubermanns harbor a Jewish man named Max and must deal with the ramifications of doing something so blasphemous during the regime of the Third Reich. Zusak’s work follows Liesel through the entirety of the war, taking special care to flesh out the relationships of Liesel and those closest to her. It’s astonishing to see such deep character work in a genre so often driven by fantastical plots and magic lands.

The Book Thief succeeds, in large part, due to its narrative style and tone. Death is not cold; rather, we find out that he actually despises his work. He remains detached and distant, but only so he doesn’t get drawn into the emotional burden of playing the grim reaper. These moments do slip into the narrative, however, allowing us to sympathize with a character who, by our very existence, we are inclined to hate. A likeable harbinger of the end, Death provides an omniscient lens that, while guarding us from close bonds with specific people and places, allows us to feel for the world as a whole. It works.

Similarly, The Book Thief shines for the way it approaches the lives of everyday Germans during the war. Many WWII novels focus on the Jewish person in Holocaust Germany for obvious reasons. The Book Thief does both; Liesel, a German girl, and Max, A Jew, form an unbreakable friendship that overshadows any of the tensions going on in the world around them. Literally, the two spend time isolated in the Hubermann basement–Max as a stowaway and Liesel his primary companion–reading books and forgetting, for small increments of time, how fundamentally impossible their circumstances make it for them to enjoy each other’s company. When she does venture outside, Liesel finds that not everyone she knows is a Jew-hating Nazi, and even the most wealthy people she encounters are scared of Hitler’s power. Everyone is just trying to survive their own personal corner of Hell. Yes, there are those characters, but we are reminded that not all Germans were pawns of evil. War touches everyone, regardless of how much direct contact they have with it, and The Book Thief is a good reminder of that.

Zusak’s novel is eponymous, and “The Book Thief” is Death’s appositive for Liesel, despite the fact that she really only takes three books. Much like he becomes fascinated with the colors of the sky as he takes someone’s soul, Death becomes fixated on Liesel for her literary endeavors. Much of the novel is spent showing us Liesel’s development as a reader, whether its through the stories she tells or the books she reads. Books are used as a vehicle for Liesel’s growth; every relationship she has outside of her foster family is directly related to her pursuit of books in one way or another, whether it’s her relationship with the woman she steals from or with her partner in crime and pseudo-romantic interest, Rudy.

I’m not quite sure if Zusak was trying to make some meta comments about the importance of reading and literacy (which can, of course, be tied back to the WWII setting as well), but his use of books as a means to progress the story is ultimately his story’s biggest flaw. It’s interesting and fresh, for sure. For that, I applaud him, However, as the novel moves forward and literature is thrust more into the spotlight, the inherently dark setting loses some of what makes it so heavy. Books become such a centralized focus, a method of coping with war that it mitigates the emotional impact that war carries. You don’t forget it’s there, but it becomes much less of a pressing issue, which is problematic for a story being touted as one of the great recent WWII novels. Caring about the characters is wonderful, but not when it comes at the cost of sacrificed urgency. Not exactly a deal breaker, but a significant blemish on an otherwise pristine face.

It’s fairly easy to see why The Book Thief is one of the most successful YA novels of all time. It doesn’t baby readers; instead it thrusts them into the heart of Nazi Germany and spins a fresh, exciting, and heart-wrenching tale about the evils of war, racism, and bigotry. I’ll go so far as to say it’s necessary for people of the age group. There are certainly things to be gleaned if you’re a part of the older audience, too, even if it’s just exposing yourself to a new writing style and some unique POV manipulation. If it is possible to read such a book for “fun,” then this one may be it; it does a good job of getting into the dark and dirty without completely opening the floodgates. Leave the true horror of the war to things like The Diary of a Young Girl or Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. Maybe the distinction here is that fiction can never possibly come close to reality when it comes to World War II. If so, I think The Book Thief gets somewhere in the ballpark. It’s a good primer into the genre, but not the gold standard it’s made out to be.


Tentative review schedule:

The Little Black Book of Workout Motivation by Michael Matthews (pub. Aug 2018)

The Book of Essie by Meghan Maclean Weir (pub. June 2018)

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