Yep, it happened. I finally read a book this year that made me cry like a baby. I dropped a couple tears over American Gods and Joe Hill's short story "Pop Art" earlier this year. But this one brought on all the sniffling hysterics I reserve for my favorite emotional reads. The book? Markus Zusak's "young adult" novel The Book Thief.
I have yet to personally meet a single person who's read The Book Thief and didn't love it. It's one of those word of mouth books that picks up steam with time. The book debuted way back in 2006, but recently, it's been topping bestseller lists and winning hearts all over the world. Surprisingly, I've read a handful of scathing reviews dating back to the book's release. But those reviews don't matter. Because this book is amazing.
For the last few months, one of my most reader-ly friends has been after me to read Zusak's novel. "But it's about Nazi Germany," I said. "I don't like books about that time period." Luckily, she kept after me, claiming it would be right up my alley. I resisted for a long time, but when I saw a copy of the book at the library I work at, I relented. Okay, I'll give it a shot, I thought.
I loved it. Loved loved loved it. It's a weird book - thick and full of characters and narrated by Death itself. It's hard to make a summary of the plot, but I'll try: Young Liesel Meminger is sent to Molching (a small town on the outskirts of Munich) as a foster child after her mother decides she can no longer care for her due to the political climate and lack of money. On the trip there, Liesel's little brother dies. At that moment, our narrator Death meets Liesel for the first time, and he's captivated by her. Liesel's foster parents are Hans and Rosa Hubermann, and they end up being great parents. Rosa is prickly and verbally abusive, but she loves her foster daughter. And Hans is this book's Atticus Finch - an honorable person of the highest order. He saves Liesel from her nightmares and her illiteracy, and he is a truly wonderful human being. Eventually, the Hubermann's hide a Jewish man named Maxi n their basement, and he becomes friends with adolescent Liesel. In the meantime, Liesel gains a best friend in the sweet and lovelorn Rudy Steiner, who eventually shows the same kind of honor and belief in humanity that marks Hans Hubermann. Of course, World War Two happens during all this, and the war and Nazi Party completely obliterate this little world in Molching.
Zusak handles all the chaos of the time period and the world he's created very well. Death makes a great narrator, with little asides and notes that deepen the book's themes and complicate the actual storytelling. Death doesn't have the desires for mystery and plotting that humans have, so he often gives things away early and often. But if anything, this just made me love the way the story was told that much more. Death's thoughts can be surprisingly poignant at times.
The characters are what make this book, at least for me. Liesel is a great protagonist, capable of all emotion. She can be mean at one moment, completely selfless the next. Her stepfather, Hans, is an enviable (if somewhat cliched) father figure. Rudy is the perfect best friend, backing up Liesel when she needs it and secretly pining for her all the while. Then, of course, there's Max, who is as complex as any actual person you could meet. And Zusak then has the guts to fill the book with a myriad of secondary characters as well, enriching the book's world.
So where does the title come from, you might wonder. Well, that's simple. Liesel is the book thief, a stealer of words. When her biological little brother is buried, she finds and takes a copy of The Gravedigger's Handbook. Once Hans Hubermann teaches her to read using that book, she becomes obsessed with words. Throughout the book, she steals and acquires several books, all of which are her greatest treasures. At the end of the book, words literally save her life, as she writes her life story in a basement during a bombing. Yet, through the entire book, Liesel and Death and Max reflect on the dual power of words. Words led to the rise of Hitler and Nazi atrocities. But they also provide comfort and security not found anywhere else. By the end of the book, we're meant to understand that humanity is the same: capable of good and bad in equal measure.
In a lot of ways, I can see why some critics found the book a little over-padded and heavy-handed. But I'm willing to ignore all that. Because this book had moments and sentences so gutwrenching I actually felt like I'd been punched in the stomach. Unfortunately, I can't say much about my favorite passages without giving the book's power away, but let's just say that this book rocked my world for the five days I read it. While reading the book, I grew particularly fond of Rudy Steiner, a BFF for the ages, so any of Death's observations of his character were particularly moving for me.
Anyway, this book made me cry outright by the end. It's beautiful and haunting and breaks your heart over and over again. But it's also a fantastic picture of human beings in all their complicated, terrible, hopeful ways. This is, without a doubt, bound to be one of my favorite books I'll read this year.
Book Reviewed: The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak