Markus Zusak's The Book Thief (Black Swan, 2005; 554) is a book that is difficult to place between the dichotomy of adult or children's book. It is a book about a child and some adults during the World War II Nazi Germany. It is a heart-wrenching novel narrated by Death and in The Book Thief Death is forced to work and its less nefarious than humans.
The book is in ten parts with each part comprising short chapters and each chapter interspersed with poetry-like lines that seek to explain further what has been stated, providing several asides germane to the overall appreciation of the novel.
The book opens with the main character Liesel Meminger and her brother on their way to meet their foster parents, the Hubermanns: Hans Hubermann and Rosa Hubermann of Himmel Street, Molching; but his brother could not make it and died in the train. During his burial Liesel would steal her first book, The Gravedigger's Handbook. Note, Himmel means Heaven but the Horrors that will be unleashed on this street is enough to make Death cold. Note also that Liesel's brother's death and another death, of his best friend, will haunt her for a long period of time - from a time when she had no idea of what is happening to when she will come to appreciate what it is to be the Other. Liesel's precociousness and her love for books will save her through a period of unpredictable deaths.
Ironically, the ingenuity of this book lies in the narrator: Death, as a somewhat omniscient narrator with compassion and humaneness that surpass what was available at the time. Death is more likely to be the only character who, hovering above the death-fields, witnessed the entire events that took place from 1939 to 1945; any other narrator might write from a narrow point of view and sometimes with bias.
On Himmel Street in the Hubermanns' apartment, Liesel would be tormented by the death of his brother and Papa, Hans Hubermann, would come to her aid every time it happens. It was this that would lead to her learning how to read, even though Papa himself is bad at it. Mama, or Rosa Hubermann, would through her idiosyncratic shouting and superficial anger, weave her way into the heart of Liesel and they would become the best of friends in a rather weird way of Saukerl (for Papa) and Saumensch. Later, Liesel will befriend Rudy Steiner, a boy of similar age and the two together with people on Himmel Street will live a life devoid of the knowledge of coming events. With time, when the food rationing that foreboded worst events, the children would steal fruits and food to survive.
Then one day Hans was approached by a German in search of refuge for his friend, a Jew by name Max Vandenburg. Vandenburg's father had died during WWI and it was his accordion, given to Hans by Max's mother when he relayed the news of her husband death to her that has kept the life at 33 Himmel Street. Max wants a place to hide from the Nazis and it was Hans who provided him his basement. Max would later form a bond with Liesel and share common stories and nightmares.
Zusak showed two people who have lost their humanity: one has lost all sense of compassion and caring, have placed himself on a higher genetic pedestal that makes him and only him human and all others animals. Other has also lost his humanity through debasement, through maltreatment, through his dehumanisation. And Zusak shows that the weaker of the two is the former and not the latter. Zusak has written a book that will forever be with the reader. He never made it easy and even though Death dropped major coming events before they happened, the path towards their realisation was never an easy one. In the end Death declares
I am haunted by humans.
Anytime you blame death, as most of us are wont to do when we personify it, don't look farther from the human who caused that death, in some cases. Don't blame death for deaths resulting from wars and attacks, suicide bombings, murders and more. Blame the humans who cause the deaths.
Though Zusak never made it easy for the reader, he also provided some teeth-showing smiles of some sorts in the end; showing that the human spirit is much more resilient than we believe it is and that even though evil may rule and brood for awhile, it is not long that our common inherent goodness will smother it. He showed that even in the evilest of lives there is some good in it. For instance, Hans - a German - provided a piece of bread to a totally unknown Jew in a parade marching towards Dachau, risking his life and that of his family. Later Liesel would do same and earn herself severe whippings.
This book is a must read. Kindly consider it and when humans everywhere, irrespective of position and place, have read it, perhaps war will become limited. What of the countless dying in Iraq, in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Somalia, in Ethiopia and more!