‘The Book Thief’ is the pinnacle of historical fiction

Book of the Week

Michael Sicoli, Opinion Editor

A story is only as interesting as its narrator, and “The Book Thief,” by Markus Zusak, is told by Death itself.

Photo from Wikipedia

That’s not hyperbole. The Grim Reaper watches over Liesel Meminger as she grows from a child to a young woman in Nazi Germany in this international bestseller. Death is naturally a big part of the era — a wry, wearied narrator with a dry sense of humor about millions of lives lost tells this story. However, don’t mistake that dry humor for anything other than a coping mechanism. Even Death was horrified and haunted by the genocide in Germany during World War II.

Death follows Liesel and her family, sharing their perspectives as Germany embraced Nazism. Her stepfather, Hans Hubermann, is a kind and caring man with a good judgement of right and wrong. Her stepmother, Rosa Hubermann, is tough and cold to Liesel, but it becomes clear that she deeply cares for her inside.

With Nazi enthusiasists sweeping neighborhoods as Adolf Hitler rose to power, the family blended in. Liesel joined the youth group while Hans signed up with the Nazi party, even if it wasn’t something he believed in.

In a great act of virtue, when his Jewish friend Max Vandenburg asks to be hidden, Hans obliges. Max possesses guilt over leaving his family, who did not want to understand what the Nazis were going to do next. But he also feels terrible about putting Liesel and her family in danger.

There’s much to like about this book, particularly if you enjoy historical fiction. But Max’s character and his relationship with Liesel is one of the best in literature. The two spend a lot of time together in the cold, damp basement where Max is fixed up, talking about what books Liesel is reading. They become family, as Max shares his own short stories with the young girl, and Liesel describes the weather outside with colorful, childlike imagery — similarly to how Death describes the souls he sees throughout “The Book Thief.”

In “The Word Shaker,” one of the books Max writes for Liesel, he describes Nazi Germany as a forest filled with words that created “a nation of farmed thoughts.” It shows Max’s belief on Germany where Hitler had contorted an entire population to his ideology. But one tree did not bend or break — the one that a strong girl plants in the book that symbolizes Liesel’s friendship with Max.

Max daydreams about boxing Hitler. He feels the roar of the crowd while they box for hours. But it’s a battle Max cannot win. The fight is always rigged against him when Hitler incites the crowd on his side, but he fights nonetheless.

There’s also Liesel’s best friend Rudy Steiner, another great relationship featured in this book. Rudy constantly tries to get a kiss from Liesel only to be affectionately called “Saukerl,” an insult that Rosa calls Hans. Rudy idolizes the great Jesse Owens, a Black American runner who won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, hurting Hitler’s mantra about a superior German race. The symbolism of that combined with Rudy’s charming character is hard to ignore.

There’s Hans’ recruitment to the military, in which he’s sent away and narrowly avoids Death several times. There are loyal and quiet German characters, reflective of the time period. Speaking up was a death sentence, and that’s how Hitler rose to power. Going against him meant risking everything — just like Hans does.

I’m purposefully trying my best not to reveal any spoilers here. The symbolism and artful storytelling makes this a must-read as one of the most heartfelt books out there. The ending is memorable for me to this day. Like any great author, Zusak understands the power of language and uses it to create an impactful story about a period when words made all the difference.