The International Writers
Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Sam North review
'Papa,' she whispered. 'I think I am going to hell.'
is Germany 1939. The country is at war with most of the world.
By the end of the book it is at war with all of it. But in 1939
it is certain of victory. Death is gearing up for mass production
and although this is a story about a girl Liesel, it is narrated
by Death, who is quite philosophical at times and even sentimental,
despite all his hard work, day in day out, on behalf of Herr Hitler.
Liesel's story begins
with the death of her brother and the disappearance of her mother. At
the snowy graveside of her brother Liesel finds her calling. She steals
a book lying in the snow. It is called 'The Gravedigger's Handbook'
and although she cannot read, she knows it will be important to her
and forever tie her to her brother somehow.
Liesel is fostered out to the Hubermann's on Himmel Street in Molching,
a town a spit away from Dachau where she will from time to time see
the Jews marching down the street to their deaths.
The Hubermanns are
plain folk. Rosa a loud, swearing women who takes in people's washing,
Papa Humbermann, when not being henpecked is an accordian player and
ex-painter of houses. (He would be active but he delayed too long in
joining the Nazi party and is considered by many to be a Jew-lover and
Liesel is not without
resources. She is capable of fighting with the boys and she makes lasting
friendship with Rudy from next door who adores her and constantly wants
a kiss - although he is never going to get one.
Liesel experiences life and school in the new home and earns herself
a nickname Saumensch for not washing when she first arrived. But in
this warm, affectionate atmosphere she thrives and quickly learns to
call her foster parents Mam and Papa, (though she never forgets her
real Mama or dead brother). Indeed Liesel is haunted by nightmares that
Papa Hubermann patiently help her through. His kindly eyes calm her
and his accordian playing soothes her.
Liesel is ten now,
she must join Hitler Youth, where she learns to Heil Hitler properly
and hike and such things. But she is never captivated by it and she
and Rudy share a laothing for the pettiness of the mean spirited people
who enjoys such things. Rudy is picked on and comes home covered in
mud or worse each time.
But into this -
sometimes ideal existence -comes a dark shadow for Liesel.
Papa Hubermann once made a promise - a long time ago during the First
World War. It now comes back to haunt him in the shape of Max. A Jew
seeking refuge. A promise must be kept. Papa and Rosa know that even
though it would death for them if it was discovered but they are honorable
folk. But what will Liesel say? Will she give them away to the Nazis?
Liesel has already seen enough suffering however. She welcomes Max and
he moves into the cellar, the cold damp cellar. A new adventure begins.
For Max, Liesel
becomes his lifeline, his eyes and ears. Each day he listens carefully
to her adventures with Rudy and other friends, whether the football
in the street or learning to steal apples or books. He dwells on every
moment in Liesel's life and she keeps him company, perhaps not realising
that she is keeping his spirit alive.
One day Max surprises
Liesel with a book he has drawn her, created from pages torn from Main
Kampf and painted over. He has written her 'The Standover Man' - a simple
but haunting vision of what it is like to be born Jewish in Hitler's
Germany and the hope that Liesel represents.
it but keeps it secret, as is Max from everyone in her life. It is hard
keeping a secret, even from Rudy,
She and Rudy go on book stealing missions to the Mayor's house, always
keeping an eye out for an open window in the library. Liesel discovers
that she is excited by the thrill of it and they also get involved with
an apple stealing gang... these kids are hungry all the time.
Day to day life
goes on. Germany declares war on Russia, things go sour, the war turns
but life must be lived in Himmel Street. There are books to be stolen,
more words to be learned in the cellar with Papa Hubermann and Max.
Rudy has problems with bullying, Liesel is discovered as the thief by
the Mayor's wife with unexpected consequences and then - the bombing
starts... And Death, ever present watches. Liesel learns to her cost
that no matter how hard you might love someone, if Death has them on
his list he never fails to collect. Liesel discovers that her reading
is a comfort to others as they cower in the bomb shelters.
The Book Thief
is a remarkable tale by Marcus Zusak who also wrote The Underdog,
I am a Messenger, Fighting Rueben Wolfe. He writes with great sensitivity.
The tale shares lineage with The Pianist, Anne Frank and the
film Europe Europa but is unique in it's portrayal of ordinary
German folk going about their business in a Germany at war. It is an
absorbing insight into their lives as Death ramps up production. Liesel
is based in part on the author's mother, who grew up in Munich, watching
the sky burn red from the bombing and inspired him to write this from
a memory about witnessing the Jews being paraded, starving and emaciapted
down her street.
The Second World
still haunts us all with lasting consequences and Markus Zusak has written
a remarkable, facinating, compelling read for adults and younger readers
- an inspiration.
© Sam North
Feb 6th 2007
Sam North is
the editor of Hackwriters and the author of
'Another Place to Die'
- about the coming flu Pandemic of 2009
ISBN: 978-1-84753-899-4 Lulu Press
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