Review: The Book Thief

The Book Thief

According to the introduction presented by the narrator of the book, the entire story basically revolves around a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter and quite a lot of thievery.

Reading The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak was a pleasant surprise. I don’t remember how I came across the title of this book and how I ended up purchasing it. It even seemed a bit “off” in the beginning and I almost abandoned reading it. I was looking for something cheerful to read . Something humorous, something light. The Book Thief is an account of an orphaned girl (nine years old when the story begins) in Nazi Germany, told by Death. Her six-year-old brother dies while her mother is taking her and her brother to be given to foster parents in Munich, the guards of the train almost abandon them on a snowy terrain and the first book that she steals while her brother is being buried is “The Gravedigger’s Handbook”. How much more dismal can it get? But something nudged me on and by the time I was half through, I was practically in love with all the major characters of the book, especially Liesal, the book thief.

The story is about a little girl named Liesal told by Death. She is practically orphaned. Unable to take care of her kids, the mother decides to put her two kids in foster care, but one kid dies on their way to Munich and ultimately it’s only the daughter who reaches her foster parents, the Hubermanns. Almost the entire story takes place in the Himmel Street, a very poor place in a town called Molching that is at the outskirts of Munich. The foster parents get an allowance for keeping such kids so they are understandably upset that they were only getting the girl and not both the siblings.

This is the place where Liesal, amidst regular nightmares of her brother dying in her arms, begins to grow. She arrives at the place with nothing but the book she had stolen while her brother was being buried. The new mother and father are poles apart. The mother, Rosa Hubermann, cannot utter a sentence without appending an abuse — Saumensch or Saukerl or Arschloch were the hard-core German abuses she cannot live without. The father, Hans Hubermann, prefers to remain to himself, play his accordion, and smoke cigarettes he rolls himself. As soon as the child arrives, he takes her under his protection and shields her from Rosa’s verbal and physical onslaughts, whenever he can. He is a painter by profession but since most of his jobs came from the Jews and since most of the Jews have been killed, chased away or sent to the concentration camps, they have been reduced to having pea soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Liesal screams and cries almost every night in her nightmares and it’s Hans who wakes her up, comforts her and tells her stories, and they develop an unbreakable bonding. One of such nights she shows him the book that she had stolen once and asks him to read it to her. Hans cannot read much but their nightly reading journeys begin like this and they continue for many years as she is able to steal more and more books.

As she grows into her teens, it’s the boys she is more comfortable with rather than girls and this is how her friendship with Rudy Steiner begins, whom people consider slightly mad after he painted himself black and pretended to be Jesse Owens. Together they face many adventures, including stealing of books, and beating up of other boys.

Amidst all the adult and early teenage tumults, arrives a person one day, who looks less like a human and more like a corpse. In a town where most of the remaining adults think that Jews deserve what they have got and as soon as a Jew is sighted he should be either immediately reported or killed, the Hubermanns decide to hide a fugitive Jew in their basement.

There was a time when Jews and Germans were friends and there was a Jew who was also Hans Hubermann’s friend. This was the friend who taught him how to play the accordion. This was the friend to whom he had promised that one day he would return the favour. The friend had died long ago, leaving behind his son and wife, and it was this son the Hubermanns decide to provide shelter to when they are asked to help. Having a boisterous 12-year-old girl around who cannot normally hold her tongue doesn’t make the job easier.

Do they succeed in saving the fugitive in a place where even your neighbours are on the lookout for such fugitives, or do they get caught and meet a harsh punishment?

If you want to experience an emotional rollercoaster with exceptional writing, then do read The Book Thief.