What makes The Book Thief a truly amazing novel is the fact that it is narrated by Death. And frankly, Death needs a vacation. Death has travelled the world, collecting the souls of those departed, clearly bewildered at the actions of humans. However, Death maintains a certain curiosity about humans and their relationships with each other. The story is told over the course of four years, starting in 1939 and ending around 1943.
Death introduces himself in the beginning of the book and speaks of someone named the Book Thief, a person whom he has seen three times. The Book Thief is actually a 10-year-old girl named Leisel Meminger in Nazi Germany who is travelling with her mother and younger brother, Werner, to Molching, Germany, to live with foster parents, Hans and Rosa Huberman. But before Leisel reaches Molching, Werner dies suddenly. At his burial, Leisel retrieves a book left behind by a gravedigger entitled The Grave Digger’s Handbook. Leisel soon becomes fascinated by books, and later learns to read with the assistance of her foster father.
Her second book is found after she witnesses a book burning on Adolf Hitler’s birthday. It is during this time that Hans and Rosa begin secretly housing a Jewish man by the name of Max Vandenburg, whose father had served with Hans in the First World War. Leisel and Max develop a very strong bond with one another, especially over reading and writing. Max begins creating his own stories depicting his hardships and relationship with Leisel. However, when the threat of keeping Max becomes too great for the Huberman family, Max is forced to leave. Leisel is severely worried that she will one day see Max marching to a local concentration camp.
Leisel continues collecting books, and even befriends the mayor’s wife, Ilsa Hermann, who allows Leisel to read from her extensive library. She also begins to write in the Huberman bomb shelter in the evenings, attempting to write her own stories. Everything seems to be going well for once in her life, when an unimaginable tragedy leaves Leisel completely alone. As Leisel leaves Himmel Street and Molching behind, she also leaves the book she had been writing in her basement, The Book Thief. As Death passes through Molching, he collects the book and begins reading it.
The end of the novel reveals that Leisel lived a long life and that Max survived the concentration camp in which he was eventually imprisoned. Liesel and Max reunited after World War II ended. When Leisel dies, she meets Death and learns that he still has her book. Death gladly returns The Book Thief, with Leisel asking if Death ever read it. For a moment, Death reflects several events he has seen in the world, and then responds: “I am haunted by humans.”
Unfortunately, this brief overview of The Book Thief simply does not do it justice. The Book Thief is a remarkable novel, and captures the essence of World War II Germany from the captivating perspective of Death and a young child. It is an unexpected take on the influence of Nazi Germany on the lives of millions. Leisel Meminger and the relationships she builds with her foster parents, her neighbors, and Max emphasize the importance of friendship and how the kind actions of one person can touch the hearts of so many more individuals.Tweet