It didn’t take very much for Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief to take permanent residence at the top of my favorite books. Though the Harry Potter series has been the crowning monarch on that list, after many years, it has opened the door to its palace and allowed The Book Thief in.
I say it didn’t take much, but I’m sure Markus Zusak would beg to differ. As much as I’d like to think that he breezed through it in one sitting, I’m sure that he agonized over every word as every single writer who understands the distinct weight of words does. Zusak proceeds to demonstrate his understanding of this in The Book Thief, not just because of his inimitable prose style, but because one of the underlying, deeper themes of the novel is the power of words.
The story begins in 1939, right as the Third Reich is consuming Europe and leaving devastation in its path. Fitting to the somber mood of the story and the time period, the story is narrated by a personified version of death. He never quite intrudes with the plot; he just observes and narrates and when the time comes he does what he’s there to do: collect the dead.
However, Death becomes intrigued by a girl, Liesel Meminger, who has just laid her younger brother to rest. On the way to her new foster parents’ home, he suddenly passed away. Her mother, we presume, must go into hiding as her husband was already murdered for acts of communism. In the very first pages of the book, Liesel commits her first act of book thievery, as she snatches up a copy found laying on the ground of The Gravedigger’s Handbook. This catches Death’s eye and he proceeds to follow her purely out of curiosity.
Liesel must now acclimate to her strange, new family. Her new foster father is all patience and gentleness as he takes Liesel in and slowly allows her to warm up to his easy-going personality which is in complete contrast to her foster mother’s. Rosa is in a constant battle with everyone, ordering, criticizing, complaining — she’s a ball of manic energy, relentlessly keeping everyone in check but with her heart is in the right place.
Hans and Liesel’s bond grows as he begins teaching her how to read. They begin with The Gravedigger’s Handbook, but soon make it through other books, with Liesel’s love for words growing insatiably, her passion for books developing like something that had been previously hidden in her DNA and which is now erupting through her very skin.
One night, Max, a jew running from the Nazis, shows up at their household. He pleads with Hans for a place to hide. As it turns out, even if Hans wanted to refuse him, he can’t, because Max’s father was the man that saved his life back in WWI, losing his own. So the Hubermans take Max in and hide him in their basement.
It doesn’t take very long for Max and Liesel to become close friends. While Hans taught Liesel how to read and write, it’s Max that teaches Liesel how to develop a writer’s intuition. He encourages her not to just see the shape and form of things, but how to relate them in a way so that she can paint pictures in the minds of people who may not have had the chance to see the things she’s seen.
I have loved the words and I have hated them, and I hope I have made them right.— excerpt from Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief
In this way, and many others, Zusak explores the power of words. He explores their allure through Liesel’s initial curiosity about them. Then he explores the compulsion that comes when you’re a lover of words, that feeling like you can never get enough. Then there’s the motivation to create your own, to be able to give back what books have given to you. He explores rhetoric by relaying the messages that were shared by the Third Reich during the second world war. There’s magnificent symbolism when Max takes Hitler’s infamous Mein Kampf and paints over it, writing his own story that he later gifts to Liesel. He takes a book with words that hurt and deceive and instead fills it with his own story — a story of fighting and resilience.
The magnanimity of Zusak’s talent is mind-blowing in this book. I’ve been devouring books since I was able to understand letters, and though I’ve read many beloved stories, none have done for me what The Book Thief has. Zusak has opened my eyes to a whole new way to use words. It wasn’t until I read Zusak that I was able to really understand the flexibility of words and began applying it to my own writing.
Though The Book Thief carries a tone of somberness and melancholy, due to the historical period it takes place in and the recurring theme of death and mortality, it is not a depressing book. Every chapter, every sentence is lined with hope. Mainly, the hope one is able to find in words and stories. One particular scene depicts this as the citizens of Liesel’s town hide together in basements to keep safe from the bombings, Liesel begins to tell stories to distract the frightened people.
This is what words do. They unite us. They bring the human spirit together in ways that only art knows how to do. That a story about the importance of words could also be told in this beautiful, poetic way, in which every word within it seems to be plucked from one soul to be recognized by other souls, is nothing short of a world wonder. If you’re a reader or writer and you understand this love of words on a level deeply and inexplicably embedded in your own DNA, then you will love The Book Thief.