“I love this place and hate it, because it is full of words.” (p. 555)
I was nineteen years old when I had my first encounter with The Book Thief. A good and trusted friend told me that she didn’t like it because it was about Nazi Germany and had very little to do with stealing books. As a result, I didn’t read it until very recently.
I was startled to find that, indeed, the novel has an awful lot to do with book theft and has a lot to say about the power of words. Not only that but I couldn’t put it down. I absolutely love The Book Thief. Needless to say, I don’t give much credit to my once good and trusted friend’s opinions anymore.
As I have already mentioned The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany in 1938 and concludes in Germany in 1945. It tells the story of a girl named Liesel Meminger who is deposited on Himmel Street where she is cared for by her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann.
Liesel quickly befriends a local boy named Rudy Steiner, who once painted himself black with chimney soot to look like Jesse Owens and is now considered a little mad by the rest of Himmel Street. Incidentally, Himmel translates to heaven, an ironic name given the events of the novel.
What makes this book interesting is its narrator. The story is told from the perspective of Death, otherwise known as the Grim Reaper. This lends the narrative a certain morbid hopelessness, especially when Death recounts the gassing of Jews in German concentration camps:
“Please believe me when I tell you that I picked up each soul that day as if it were newly born. I even kissed a few weary, poisoned cheeks.” (p. 373)
The Second World War and the Holocaust are cast in a new and, altogether sobering, light when seen through the eyes of one who bears souls away. Even Death sounds exhausted by the sheer loss of life during that period of time. It is this line in particular that I found most striking:
“For me, the sky was the colour of Jews.” (p. 372)
From the outset, Death is singularly fascinated by the colours of the day. He records them as he collects each soul, a simple pleasure for one with a daunting task. So when Death describes the sky in this almost offensive manner he is referring, of course, to gas chambers and concentration camps, to ghettos and Stars Of David.
In a novel that deals with the horror of war and grief it is surprising how little God is mentioned. And when He is, it is typically cavalier:
“God never says anything. You think you’re the only one he never answers?” (p. 373)
It is interesting, in a book that deals with the power of words, that Zusak chooses to silence the most powerful voice of all. I can understand how someone can look at the events of the Holocaust and believe that God isn’t answering prayers. It is hard to see God in this evil period of history. But that doesn’t mean He was silent. God never stops talking. He created the world using only words (Genesis 1), gave life to man with His breath (Genesis 2:7) and the gospel of John describes Jesus Christ as “the Word.” (John 1:1). We refer to the Bible as God’s Spoken Word. Ours is a God of speech.
Ultimately, and not entirely unexpectedly (since the blurb on the back will mention this, depending on your copy), the novel ends in tragedy. Without going into detail there is, however, a glimmer of triumph. This is a novel that finds hope in words, in the enduring power of books and ideas. While one man uses his words to control a country, Liesel finds that they can be used instead to plant friendship and love.
Finally, if you have seen the movie allow me to encourage you to read the book. It is a beautifully written and powerfully moving account of one of the worst wars in history.