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Book Review

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Bodely Head
ISBN: 978-0-370-32921-5

Sam North review

'Papa,' she whispered. 'I think I am going to hell.'

It 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 denied membership).

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.

Liesel treasures 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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