Michael Kneeland's Reviews > The Book Thief

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
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Jun 26, 12

Recommended for: anyone and everyone
Read in November, 2006

Occasionally, you will read a novel that offers you new ideas about what a novel can actually do, how point of view and voice can be used differently but powerfully, and how characters can be developed to such an extent that they seem more human than those we come into contact with each day. This seems to be the case with Markus Zusak's 2005 novel, The Book Thief. I first read it on a recommendation from a librarian friend, and now find myself talking about it at great length to anyone who will listen (if you listen closely, you can hear my students start to groan...until they start reading it, that is). With any luck, I'll get it on my reading list at the school I teach at by next year. It's that kind of good.

The novel centers around the experiences of a young girl in World War II-era Germany. Contrary to my initial prediction, the girl, Liesel, is not Jewish but instead the orphaned daughter of two communist parents who were ostensibly murdered when finally caught by the Nazis. In any event, they never appear, which becomes painfully obvious during one particularly heartwrenching episode. Liesel spends most of the novel in the home of two poor but well-meaning foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, who are patriotic enough not to be arrested, but dissenting enough that Hans has been refused admission to the Nazi party. Thus, through Liesel and the Hubermanns, we get a point of view of Nazi Germany to which we're not readily accustomed: not of the depraved and defiled victims of the Holocaust, nor of the gung-ho fundamentalist "Heil-Hiterl!"ing-every-five-seconds Nazis; but instead of those we rarely if ever hear from, those caught in the uncomfortable and inescapable middle.

Oh, and the narrator.

Zusak manages (ingeniously, I should add) to blend first- and third-person omniscient narrators by making his Death (with a capital "D," as in the Grim Reaper), an intriguing if not entirely surprising choice given the novel's setting. Through Death, we not only get Liesel's thoughts, feelings, and actions ( as well as those of the others who come into the tale on occasion) but also his own: we get to see just how much he hates his job and yet simultaneously sees the necessity of it; we see how he reacts when he comes to collect his quarry (positively tear inducing, as in a sequence near the beginning when he describes what it was like to have to collect the small, limp, and sickly body of Liesel's younger brother); and we get to know some of his curious personality traits (would you ever think that Death would be obsessed with--of all things!--colors?). Zusak's choice of narrator is at once utterly risky and entirely genious--after all, we could have been stuck with a morose and altogether boring narrator. Instead, we have a perfectly round character who seamlessly melds the first- and third-person point of view.

Novelists can have a nasty tendency to develop one or two main characters and leave the rest flat and uninteresting (case in point: essentially anything by the Clive Cussler's and Jackie Collins' of the contemporary scene--they fail to realize that people, not just plot, are interesting; unfortunately, many readers these days fail to realize this too). Zusak seems to suppress this urge however and manages to give us an entire cast of characters--including primary, secondary, and even tertiary characters--who are all very round and therefore very interesting. Take, for instance, the hunched-over old man named Pfiffikus, who at first seems to just be a cranky, foul-mouthed old codger but who we eventually find to be genuinely proud of his heritage. Then there is the Mayor's wide, who appears at first to be a paper-thin cutout of a character until we learn the reason for her projected flatness of character. And we could also discuss Tommy Mueller, a boy from the Hubermann's street who had so many ear infections (and operations on these ear infections) as a younger child that he has since been left with scars and an ever-present twitch.

Think that's a lot of information about a few characters? Here's the kicker: Pfiffikus, the Mayor's wife, and Tommy Mueller are not even main characters! But they were developed believably and interestingly enough so it seems they are, or should be.

This does not by any means imply that the main characters are boring stereotypes: they, too, are strikingly believable, and when the novel is finished, you genuinely feel as though they are people you know (or knew) from your own experiences. That is one of the most glorious aspects of this novel and--when it topples over its devastating denouement--one of the most tragic.

I have gone to great pains in this review to avoid giving away too much of the plot because seeing what unfolds for these people you feel you know is another of the novel's glorious aspects. However, the plot is perhaps the weakest link in the novel's chain. The book is by no means predictable, but the only really eye-opening and fist-slamming-on-the-table event comes at the novel's aforementioned denouement. The rest of the plot does seem to drag a bit in places, but I suppose this comes naturally in the balance when you have such juicy and unforgettable characterization. Actually, that the plot is as good as it is with fantastic characterization like we are presented with is something of a miracle.

In the years to come, this novel will rest on top of professors' shelves and "Best" lists alongside the likes of To Kill a Mockingbird, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Great Expectations. Certainly, you will be hard pressed to find a novel of this caliber much of anywhere on the current scene. Do yourself a favor: eschew The Book Thief's "YA" label and read it like the classic novel is already stands out as.
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Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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message 1: by Rachel (last edited May 18, 2009 08:10PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Rachel Interesting. I mentioned To Kill a Mockingbird in my review, too, although for a different reason. And I know what you mean about the plot not having a lot of freaky and surprising twists and turns. It just goes along at a very nice and .... not exactly predictable, but calm and deliberate pace. I'm sure it would drive some people bananas, but I'm much more into character devlelopment, so this book was right up my alley.


Grace I enjoyed your thoughtful and eloquent review! Thanks for posting it!


Dawn Teresa I agree with what you said about the character development in the first paragraph of your review. When I finished reading this book, it seemed like it was more than just a story. It was as if all of the characters and everything that happened was completely real. That's the marker of a glorious achievement in fiction. Writing something that rings so true that the characters jump off the page and come alive!


Rajdeep truly the best book i have read and will probably read !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!and gr8 review


Joni I generally never read long reviews because I despise a re-write of the book, but yours is a great review. This is the kind of thoughtful summation that tells the reader only as much as they need to be excited about their next great read! Nice job.


Miss Vought I agree with you 100%. I've read this book twice in the past year and it hasn't left me. Everything about it is unique--the POV, character development, writing style, perspective of WWII. I'd love to teach it as well--It'd be an awesome to teach it alongside To Kill a Mockingbird.


Bonnie Brandt I absolutely agree with your opinion that this book will become a classic. I want everyone to read it!


Adam Holeman I'd say it was rather shallow character development, the narrator not nearly as genius as you make it out to be, the endless foreshadowing was irritating (although it may keep interest levels up for the younger readers), and in my humble opinion, shouldn't be compared such greats as 'To Kill A Mockingbird' and 'Great Expectations'. I hate to be the one guy who didn't like it, but I just didn't like it.


Jane Thomson I agree with you whole-heartedly. This novel will certainly stay with me for years to come.


message 10: by Anton (new)

Anton Dockel There should be medication for those who liked this book. Grand delusions and actually telling some other inncoent people about this GREAt book. The mind boggles. You could make a great lecture on how not to write by using the Book Thief. 1) Do build suspense 2) Being a sweet girl that wets her bed and is unable to learn to read at school in not a great character. A foul mouth ugly woman with a golden heart . To have to explain it when the book leaves you gagging with its bad writing..... I am goign to take an aspirin


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