“When you read a book as a child, it becomes part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your life does,” says Meg Ryan in the movie You’ve Got Mail. I may not have been a child when I read Marcus Zusak’s novel The Book Thief—okay, I admit, I was in high school—but The Book Thief is one of those rare books that struck straight to my soul, a feat accomplished by only a few precious books.
There were many things about The Book Thief that resonated with me in a strong way, that made it a book of the like I had never read before—and may never read again. One of these things is the narrator: Death. As I write that out, it feels morbid. Death? Like, Jack the Ripper? With a black cloak and a sickle? Zusak’s pensive narrator is anything but this dark image of doom. In The Book Thief, Death is an observer, a presence that watches the events of humanity unfold, and when the time comes he ferries souls from one life to the next. He is not threatening, or even calming. He is just there, like a third person narrator unraveling a story—which he is in The Book Thief. And in the height of World War II, where the novel takes place, Death has his work cut out for him. This setting provides Death to make some deep insights into the condition of the world, as well as the capacity in humans for great good and great evil. This kind of narration also made for very original writing and storytelling, establishing Zusak as a master of his craft.
Another thing that struck me—indeed, struck every reader, I am sure—are the characters. First, there is Liesel, a young girl whose life has been marked by tragedy. She loses her parents and her brother, only to be thrown into a strange home with strange, new parents. But Liesel has a secret—she steals books. Any book she can find. And with the help of her adopted father Hans, a gentle, accordion-playing man, she learns to read. There is also Rosa, Liesel’s adopted mother, a woman presented as stern and abrupt. But as the book progresses, Liesel discovers Rosa’s true loving nature, particularly when Hans and Rosa hide Max, a Jew on the run from Hitler. Max is another stellar character, who opens up to Liesel and helps Liesel open up herself. Max teaches Liesel the importance of words and books and reading, as well as helping people during dark times. Last, but certainly not least, there is Rudy, a boy Liesel’s age, her best friend, who sees neither race nor ethnicity, but instead focuses on helping and protecting the people he loves, including Liesel.
Zusak’s characters are a testimony to the hope, kindness, and courage found in ordinary people in extraordinary times. There are many stories about the heroic actions of people during World War II. Stories of brave rebellion, like Dietrich Bonheoffer. Stories of fearless soldiers, like in Band of Brothers. But The Book Thief offers a new and rare look into another side of the war, a look into the lives of Germans living in Germany at the time, and the small, but not insignificant, actions they took to do what is right.
Marcus Zusak’s book is a masterpiece of storytelling, from the writing to the characters to the setting to the themes. He moves the readers deeply, sometimes to tears; with a fiction that is so true it cannot help but resonate with every single reader. The Book Thief is a modern classic, one that every person should read. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll cry like a baby at the end.