Novel Review

The Book Thief

By Kersley Fitzgerald

The Book Thief is 2005 novel by Australian Markus Zusak and a 2013 film starring Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. The story was inspired by the experiences of Zusak's parents. It tells of a young German girl whose communist mother must release her into foster care shortly before the beginning of World War II. Most striking is the narrator — Death.

The book and movie begin with Liesel on a train, traveling to her new foster home. It is the first time Death meets her, as she watches her younger brother die in her mother's arms. They delay their ride for her brother's burial along the train tracks. While returning to the station, Liesel quietly takes a book the grave-digger had accidentally dropped. It is the first of several books she accumulates over the course of the story, and the book her foster-father uses to teach her to read — The Grave-Digger's Handbook.

The book, as you've probably heard, is fantastic, and you must read it. There is plenty of swearing, but it's nearly all in German.

I once asked my grandmother, delicately, how her generation could have allowed their Japanese neighbors to be sent to internment camps during WWII. She replied simply that they didn't know. It was war. Her husband was called up. Rationing was tight. She worked all day. And if her family's favorite Japanese restaurant closed, who would have noticed?

The Book Thief shows the power of Nazism less as an invisible cancer and more like an inevitable tide. There is a cost to doing the right thing, and when you have yourself, your business, and your children to think about, how far can you push? To Liesel, who has already lost so much, answers come more from the heart than practical considerations, and she's fortunate her foster-parents feel the same despite their better understanding of the danger.

I've read some complaints about the film — that it doesn't hold the emotion the book did. I think there's a fairly simple explanation for that. The story in the book is being told by Death who met Liesel three times but got most of her story from her journal. The point of view is that of a supernatural entity who is intrigued by humans and is reading the interpretations of a young girl. The situation is too big and strange and dangerous for Liesel to completely understand. Everything — every person and event — is confusing and most are threatening. And Death, until he reads the journal, is haunted by humans, almost to the point of fear.

Although Death still narrates, the movie shows the other characters as they are and not so much as Liesel sees them. So we, as adults, quickly understand her foster-mother is not cruel and the celebration of Hitler's birthday is horrifying.

When Dev and I saw the movie, we were surprised to see a family with kids — perhaps 13, 11, and 6. But there wasn't really anything in the movie that was too inappropriate. If they were too young to follow the plot, they probably wouldn't notice the significance of the dramatic parts. And if they were old enough, it would be a good opportunity to discuss WWII and war in general.

If you loved the book, don't be afraid to see the movie. Of course they had to cut some things out, but the only part of consequence was the journal — inexcusably, in the movie Liesel finds and keeps it instead of Death. The spirits of the characters remain, if the plot is condensed.

If you haven't read the book, please do. Hans's kindness, Rosa's ferocity, and Liesel and Rudy's fearlessness will inspire you.

And after I read it, it only took me two weeks to recover.


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Published 1-16-14