This is another book I rescued from a free pile on a stoop. Though far from a selfless deed, I always feel like some bookish fairy godmother should high-five me after. It’s like driving by a speed trap when you’re not speeding. Wouldn’t it be nice if cops pulled you over just to say “good job”?
Now that I had The Book Thief, what was I going to do with it? I heard it was a good book, but knowing it was set during World War II gave it a gravity I didn’t feel like taking on. I wanted to give it the attention it deserved and yet the bum in me avoids books that sound big and depressing. So it went on my shelf close to but not in my to-read pile.
When is the right time to read a heavy book? For me it’s when I’m alone for a few days. Sometimes when MoonPie goes out of town he takes the bum in me with him. Suddenly I crave movies and books that offer something different from my usual fair. I watch films I’ve never seen – An Affair to Remember (sigh), Chorus Line (disappointing), and Waitress (charming and crave-inducing). Last time he went away for two weeks. Within days I’d read through all my library books and decided to read a few pages of The Book Thief until I could go back to the library.
I was hooked within a few pages.
Loosely narrated by Death during one of its busiest times in history, the story begins on a snowy day. 9-year-old Liesel Meminger’s younger brother dies on a train as their mother is taking them to live with foster parents. They bury him on the way and this is where Leisel steals her first book, The Grave Digger’s Handbook. The title escapes her as she can’t yet read.
…one opportunity leads directly to another, just as risk leads to more risk, life to more life, and death to more death
Liesel’s new Mama is strict but loves her. Her Papa has a tender heart and gives her the gift of literacy. They are German, but far from safe as Papa was branded a sympathizer after painting over hate graffiti for Jewish shop owners before they were taken away. They live off of rations, doing laundry for a dwindling list of customers and whatever Papa can scrape together playing accordion.
Liesel’s life on Himmel Street with the Hubermanns is full of responsibilities to her family, her best friend Rudy and in time the Hitler Youth. In a few short years she witnesses book burnings, sick and starved Jewish prisoners being marched through her town to a concentration camp, air raids and the people she loves taking risks to do some right when everything is wrong.
I guess humans like to watch a little destruction. Sand castles, houses of cards, that’s where they begin. Their great skill is their capacity to escalate.
The book isn’t all hardship.
You lovely bastards. Don’t make me happy. Please, don’t fill me up and make me thing that something good can come of this.
Learning to read changes everything for Liesel. That’s one of the things I loved most. There’s a sense of life going on as it does while everything changes around them. I’ve read other historical fiction set during the Holocaust, most recently Life After Life, but this is different. It gives you a non-Jewish German child’s perspective told through Death. It captures the sweeping confusion and horror and tragedies without going in to the kind of extensive detail Death could. There’s actually a lot of dark humor and restraint in the writing.
Words are everything here.
Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Führer was nothing.
During one section I kept thinking of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Joseph Kavalier narrowly escapes Prague, but he arrives in New York City a young man consumed by rage. Like one character in this book, he draws pictures of giving Hitler a killer punch in the face. Though fantasies, these scenes drive home the desperate helplessness of whatever it means to survive when everyone you care for is gone. This is Liesel’s story, but you see how the war effects different people.
Set during a time that left an enormous footprint on history, this is a small story about a girl growing up fast. People spend so much time thinking about death. Here Death spends some time thinking about us.
I can’t imagine anyone not loving this. The only drawback to reading it is major book funk. It ruined me for other books for weeks. It’s still wedged in my heart.