We should start off with some caveats for my first Cannonball Read write-up. First, while I have read many reviews from previous Reads, I have never participated before now. Second, I haven’t written literary criticism of any kind since probably 2000, when it was to earn credits for my BA in English. What I mean to say here is: Sorry if I suck at this.
The Book Thief tells the tale of a young girl named Liesel Meminger living in Germany during World War II. We begin with the funeral of Liesel’s brother in the late 1930s. Their mother, a woman with a history of communist sympathies, is taking her children to a small town near Munich to live in the care of foster parents in order to keep them safe from the increasing persecution of the Nazis. On the way there, Werner (Liesel’s brother) has a coughing fit and dies. She and her mother get off the train and bury him; after the gravediggers leave, Liesel spots a book they left behind in the snow and pockets it, thus beginning her career as a book thief.
Liesel settles in fairly quickly with her new foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Hans is an accordion-playing painter with a big heart and Rosa is a rigid housewife and laundress with a penchant for yelling and swearing. Other major roles in Liesel’s new life in Molching include Rudy Steiner (a ‘lemon-haired’ boy of the same age who seeks kisses in return for favors), Ilsa Hermann (the mayor’s sad housewife), and Max Vandenburg (a Jewish fist fighter the Hubermanns hide in their basement). I won’t spoil anything with this review, but anyone can guess that setting a story in Munich from 1939-1943 doesn’t have a lot of happy endings.
What sets this book apart from other books of this subject is the narrator. Liesel’s journey from a scared and lonely young girl to a strong, devoted and loving young woman with a knack for thievery all comes second-hand from Death. I thought this was a really interesting point of view but it was initially problematic for me. Death begins by saying “I saw the book thief three times.” Then…how does he know her story? Though it takes a little while to get there, this is all explained satisfactorily. I liked this take on what being Death would be like. The prologue is more of an introduction to him than anything else and gives us a peek at how he copes with his job. Death explains to us that he sees a color when he takes each of us. Why? “…my one saving grace is distraction. It keeps me sane. It helps me cope, considering the length of time I’ve been performing this job. The trouble is, who could ever replace me?…Needless to say I vacation in increments. In colors.”
I really liked this book. The subject matter is fairly heavy but there are moments of humor peppered throughout to give it some air. Having never read anything by Zusak before I had no expectations one way or the other; he writes well and I added another of his books to my “To-Read” shelf on Goodreads after finishing this one. From the very beginning I was picturing this in my head, almost like watching a movie. It has been awhile since I have really given much thought to World War II and the Holocaust – no matter how many times I think about it I can’t get over how the Nazi propaganda machine was so successful as to get an entire nation to either agree with its insane anti-Semitism or at least turn a blind eye out of fear. I hope I never live to see anything like it myself.
I don’t have a lot of negative comments on this book. Perhaps it was a little on the long side but, since it’s young adult fiction, once you pick it up it reads fairly quickly. While I really enjoyed this new take on a narrator sometimes I found it annoying. Death often spoils the ending out of nowhere, almost like when there’s breaking news and you hear “we interrupt your regularly scheduled programming.” For example, somewhere fairly early in the book we discover that someone close to Liesel will die before the war’s end. Surprising? Not necessarily, they ARE living in Germany in WWII. However, it’s just as you’re really getting into this connection between her and the character and it kind of ruins your enjoyment of the rest of their interaction. Said character doesn’t die until near the end of the novel. These are minor issues, however, and didn’t really make me dislike the story overall. I’d highly recommend reading this one.