Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Book Thief

Imagine a story in which the words the characters speak—and write—are living things. They sit with you, walk alongside you, murmur you to sleep or keep you awake with their chatter. They poison. They heal. They haunt. Yes, I’m thinking of a particular story, one that is both heartbreaking and beautiful in its telling. One passage may make you cry, while the next might coax a smile, and you may even laugh out loud from time to time. Make no mistake, you will feel something, and you’ll fall in love with a girl coming of age in Nazi Germany. Her name is Liesel Meminger, but you may know her as The Book Thief.

Liesel is just nine years old at the beginning of this story, and already her life is stained with grief. The loss of both her brother and mother (one has died, the other has given her away) haunt her when she comes to stay with Hans and Rosa Hubermann on Himmel Street in Molching. Rosa is stern and sharp-tongued, quick with insults and wooden spoons and feared by children and adults alike, while Hans is gentle and nurturing, a painter by trade and passable player of the accordion. It’s no surprise that Liesel grows close to Hans as he sits with her through the night during her nightmares, and he teaches her how to read using, of all things, a book she stole at her brother’s burial, The Gravedigger’s Handbook. He is the one who instills in her a lifelong love of words. Next door lives a boy with hair the color of lemons, Rudy Steiner, and as he and Liesel become fast friends, she slowly adjusts to her new life, a life that, for a time, just might be normal.

Of course, the Nazi Party has other plans, and as it begins to make its presence felt even more in Molching, things change. Heil, Hitler. Hitler Youth. Book burning. Liesel steals another book, one that survives the fire, but there are witnesses and consequences. And then there is this: a long-ago promise that comes calling in the form of a Jew named Max Vandenburg. These are perilous times for Jews and anyone who doesn’t march lock-step with Nazism, but the Hubermanns rise to the occasion and hide Max in their basement, and Liesel makes another friend. But as the noose of Hitler’s war tightens around Germany, the lives of Liesel and those she loves are changed forever.

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, is pure poetry. When you’ve finished reading your usual summer fluff, give this one a try. I think it just might give you an entirely new appreciation for the beauty, power, and life of words, particularly during dark times.  

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