The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

So it’s that time of year, when my school chooses a summer reading book that the entire student body will read. Though it’s not summer vacation yet, teachers were asked to come up with activities—from all different subjects—to accompany the students’ reading of the chosen book. This summer, the students will be reading The Book Thief, so I read it in advance to come up with something related to physics. That was a bit of a challenge, but it was worth it to read this critically acclaimed book.

The Book Thief takes place in Germany during World War II. It starts with our protagonist, ten-year-old Liesel Meminger, being left by her mother in the foster care of Hans and Rosa Hubermann, who live in Molching, Germany. Liesel’s parents are Communists and are fleeing the country but want Liesel—who is blonde enough to pass for a true-blooded German girl—to live in the event they do not. The beginning is already tragic because Liesel’s brother has died. At the start of the story, Liesel finds a book in the snow and takes it, yet she cannot read.

After several nights of waking up from bad dreams, she develops a strong bond with her foster father, who teaches her how to read. She procures other books along the way, some by gift, some by stealthy removal from a state-sponsored book burning, and several stolen from the library of the mayor’s wife. And special stories created by Max, a Jewish man that the Hubermanns temporarily hide in their basement.

These books become powerful symbols of so many different themes. Words have power for both good and bad. Words can connect us and tear us apart. Words can inspire and persuade and debase. Words allow us to express ourselves and learn the expressions of others. Liesel is both intrigued and haunted by the words—in the books, said by the people around her, and used by Hitler.

The characters in the book are all exceptionally real and well-developed. Their relationships with one another take some surprising but believable turns, and I was definitely emotionally invested in their stories. Though I rarely read historical fiction, it was refreshing and eye-opening to read about everyday people trying to go about their everyday lives during in an extremely volatile time and place. It’s humorous at times and heart-breaking at others, just like real life.

But the standout decision by the author is to have the book narrated omnisciently by the personification of Death. I’d just finished a contemporary YA fantasy-romance book with a main character working for Death, so it was interesting to see Death employed as a character in this way. Obviously having Death narrator the story is an unrealistic construct, but it didn’t make the situations in the story anything other than realistic. It also allowed the author to wax philosophical on the human condition, as Death often editorializes the main events—commenting on our strengths during adversity and our weaknesses when seeking power. I think this non-traditional narration enhanced my enjoyment of the book.

My only knock against the book is that when I put it down (when I had to go about my daily life), I sometimes wouldn’t get back to it for a couple days, instead of desperately itching to find out what happened next. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed the book thoroughly, and I can’t wait to discuss it with students in the fall, but it didn’t grip me like some other recent books I’ve read. It wasn’t because of the subject matter, because even though it’s set in Nazi Germany—a difficult time to read about—the horrors of that particular war, though present, were handled more obliquely. Maybe it was because historical fiction isn’t my preferred genre of reading.

Still, it’s an incredibly conceived and executed book, and it deserves all the accolades it has received. I love Liesel as a character, along with all the people in her life that she loves. These were believable characters leading honorable lives despite the tragedy of the times. This book thieved part of my heart, and I give it FOUR AND A HALF STARS.

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The Book Thief is available at Amazon.

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The activity I suggested, pertaining to physics, that students could do over the summer is: Liesel’s classmate and friend Rudy Steiner is obsessed with American Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in track events at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Munich. Research the distances of the races he won and his times to calculate his average speed in those events.

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