By Chet Yarbrough
The Book Thief
By Markus Zusak
Markus Zusak is a bright star in a galaxy of 21st century writers.
This is a second reading of “The Book Thief”. The first read is an intellectual entertainment; the second read is an emotional journey.
Zusak uses the Grim Reaper to tell the story of Liesel Meminger’s life. Death’s visage and commentary set the stage for one of many told tales of World War II. The irony of Death telling a story of life is clever but character development makes the story great; it turns “one of many told tales” into a heart-rending experience.
Liesel is an abandoned Jewish child, adopted by a non-denominational family living in a small German town during WWII. They live on Himmel (German for heaven) street. Liesel grieves for a dead brother and lost mother but lives through her grief and hardship by developing close relationships with her new family, a young boy named Rudy, a war refugee hiding in her adopted family’s basement. Liesel also becomes a favorite of some of her new neighbors.
Zusak gives the reader a picture of life in small town Germany when Hitler rules the Teutonic world. Zusak describes neighbors that are committed to Hitler, the grief of families that must give up fathers and sons to the military, the tragedy of lost lives, and the human degradation caused by cultural discrimination and dehumanization.
“The Book Thief” is Liesel Meminger. Her first stolen book is at the grave site of her dead brother. The book is dropped by a grave-digger that is learning his trade from a hand book about grave digging. Liesel is illiterate but the theft of a dropped book begins her obsession with written words. The beginning of this obsession is the birth of her journey through life.
Like the “butterfly effect”, the little incident of the dropped grave digger’s handbook leads to Liesel’s survival. From the great tragedies in her life, Liesel survives the war, in large part, because of a chance incident, the grave digger’s dropped book.
Zusak implies chance is an element of life that has consequence in all our lives. Life is difficult for all human beings but overcoming hardship is the difference between opportunity and being victimized.