The book thief – a review

Title: The Book Thief

 Author:  Markus Zusak

Publisher: Pan McMillan, Australia, 2005

Staff Pick: Thanh

Read from the blurb of the book: “It is 1939.  Nazi Germany.  The country is holding its breath.  Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.”

Ah well, I said to myself, another Jewish story, in the line of The Schindler’s List, The Pianist etc…  Which reminds me of my good German friend Manfred.  He’s a gentleman, in the usual sense we understand, and in the literal meaning of a gentle, soft speaking, and decent soul.  Once, he said to me:  “Yes, during that time, Germany under Hitler did unspeakable evil, but the country never lacks of decent people, and ever since we try our damnedest that nothing of the sort ever happens again.  Why even now, a book, a movie crop up to point a finger at us again and again?”

I certainly understand Manfred’s feeling, but I also understand the general sentiment of “Lest we forget”. 

Markus Zusak’s book certainly illustrates Manfred’s point:  during the fever of Hitler’s Nazi years, plenty of decent people stood up:  Hans Hubermann, painter, refused to join the Party, kept his promise and hid a Jew in his home.  Once during a Jews parade on the street, he couldn’t help to pick up and feed a fallen Jew prisoner, and was whipped and spat upon by the soldiers, his own countrymen. 

There was Alex Steiner, tailor, pure blood German, with his “contradictory politics” such as “his family, surely he had to do whatever he could to support them, if that means being in the Party, it meant being in the Party”, “he did not hate the Jews, or anyone else for that matter”.  And like Hans, at the crucial moment stood up and refused to let his son Rudy go to that elite Nazi school and was sent to war front as punishment.

There was Michael Holtzapfel, patriot soldier, hero back from the Russian front, who hanged himself, because he was “worn down by the guilt of living”, while around him his brother, his comrades, his countrymen, the Jews, were dying horrific and senseless deaths.

And there were our two main characters, Liesel, Hans’ daughter, and Rudy, Alex’s son.

Read from the Internet:  Markus Zusak is a very young author of children books.  The Book Thief is his first attempt to write for adults. 

But, as we see, his main characters are still children, teenagers actually.  And I totally agree with his choice – only children, with their pure heart, without adults’ baggage of compromises, can see straight to the core of things.

Rudy Steiner, “beautiful blond hair and big, safe blue eyes”, couldn’t understand his father’s contradictory politics; couldn’t understand why he couldn’t admire Jesse Owens, the black athlete champion of Hitler’s Olympics; couldn’t understand why he had to know by heart the Fuhrer’s birthday, then refused to do so systematically, to the point of being bashed regularly by the leader of his Nazi Youth Group.   Later on he followed Hans’ footstep in feeding the starving Jews in the street with his own bread ration.  It was him who put his sister’s teddy bear next to a dying enemy pilot to comfort him.

Liesel, our book thief, started as an illiterate little girl, learned to read with her beloved Papa Hans, fell in love with words and books and subsequently stealing them. With all the suffering around her everyday world, she realised “words” had allowed Hitler to heckle and push the world to madness, and she fell out of love with them.  But still words and books were her comfort during that harsh time where food was low, where bomb raids happened often, when her father was sent to war.  She read to comfort her neighbours during raid time in the communal bomb shelter. “The night was long with bombs and reading.  Her mouth was dry, but the book thief worked through fifty four pages.”  What a horrifying, yet fascinating way of measuring time.

Liesel had only a short happy time with her family when her injured father was sent home.  Then one night her whole neighbourhood was bombed, everyone died, her papa and mama, her best friend and sweetheart Rudy, everyone… She survived because she was reading in the basement.

The chapter where she mourned her loved ones made me cry for days.  And I firmly believe Liesel‘s predicament in her outside world was as harrowing as her counterpart Anne Frank’s inside her hiding walls.  Somehow a decent little German girl had paid her debt to a little Jew girl.

 Yes, Markus Zusak’s book is a beautiful and gripping read – lest we forget!