Regardless of whether they are fans of historic fiction or not, you would be hard pressed to find someone who wouldn’t have heard of The Book Thief. Markus Zusak’s fifth book, it is his most acclaimed one, translated into more than 60 languages and a movie adaption. Its popularity and appeal come from two aspects – the book is simple, approachable without being preachy, striking right at the heart, and is narrated by the anthropomorphic personification of Death. The latter may seem familiar to readers of Sir Terry Pratchett, but where STP’s Death is as whimsical as his creator (he has a horse named Binky), Zusak’s is somber but sensitive throughout his appearances and exchanges.
The tale is told by Death, read innumerable times by him from a book written by a girl in Germany during WW2. As the narrator, he keeps moving from a first-person perspective when talking of his experiences and interactions, to third person when talking about the incidents in the book as written by its author, 14-year-old Liesel Meminger. In a rather unconventional way, since he has no patience for suspense (being inevitable and all), he begins with the ending where he acquires the book written by the Book Thief on the bombed-out streets of Molching where she is the only survivor.
Coming back to where the story begins, he talks of his first sighting of the then 9-year-old Liesel. She is on her way to Molching, a suburb in Berlin, in a train with her mother and her baby brother, but her brother never makes it. As he comes to collect her brother’s soul, Death can almost feel the girl looking directly at him; it surprises him, as no one apart from those he collects can see him. Out of curiosity, he attends her brother’s funeral where he witnesses the book thief’s first ever theft, that of a small black book which falls out of the pockets of one of the gravediggers.
At Molching Liesel is stays with the Hubermanns, who were to foster both the siblings, and they look after her as their own daughter. Rosa Hubermann is a large, formidable woman with every sentence punctuated by profanity, a tough exterior hiding a caring nature, while Hans Hubermann is a tall, lanky man with an ever-present smile, a soft voice and a penchant for putting people at ease; Liesel starts thinking of him as Papa long before she thinks of Rosa as Mama. Although not explained directly, the reason for them being given up by their mother is alluded to in certain conversations; their father was a communist, arrested and sent to a camp, and the mother knows she will follow soon.
Just as Liesel has a history, the Hubermanns too have theirs. Rosa does the washing and ironing for a few houses in Molching, including for the mayor, but is known throughout the suburb for her sharp tongue. Hans has the misfortune of having his application to the Nazi party hanging in limbo after he helps a Jewish shop owner remove the painted Star of David from his windows. Their own children are grown up and have moved away, the daughter working as a maid and the son a thorough Party man. Though poor, they ensure Liesel is well taken care of, which includes a proper education at the local school.
Liesel’s adjustment to life at the Hubermanns’ is slow, punctuated initially by frequent nightmares of her brother’s death that lead to bed wetting incidents. Hans rises to the occasion, comforting her afterwards and sitting by her bed till she falls asleep again. During one such instance, she brings forth the small black book she has stolen and hidden away, asking him if he can read it to her. He feels the book, titled The Gravedigger’s Handbook, may not be appropriate for a little girl, but goes ahead nonetheless. It becomes a nightly ritual for them, reading together after she wakes up from her nightmares, figuring out the words and their meanings.
The nocturnal reading sessions also help at school, where she has been placed with the younger children due to her lack of reading and writing skills. Moving back among those of her own age, she meets her first friend, indeed her best friend, in Rudi Steiner. Rudi too has a reputation, known by everyone as the Boy from the Jesse Owens incident – after the 1936 Olympics, he covered himself from head to toe with soot and ran the race his idol ran at the local racetrack. The two misfits become the closest of friends, living in adjacent houses and playing together. This is punctuated at times by Rudi asking Liesel for a kiss, fancying himself a ladies’ man, and getting turned down every time.
As Liesel settles down, Rosa takes her along for her laundry rounds; it brings her into contact with the mayor’s wife who later becomes an important part of her life. Her love for reading and writing prompts Hans to gift her a couple of books for her tenth birthday, which they read together at night as always. The birthday also brings mandatory admission into the Hitler Youth, where she attends with Rudi and the other children in Molching and where the glories of Der Fuhrer and Nazism are extolled, which neither of them really care for, but Rudi bears with for the opportunities it provides for his ambitions as a track athlete.
Liesel’s life soon develops a rhythm. School in the morning, followed by accompanying Rosa on her laundry rounds in the afternoon, then playing with Rudi and the others in the neighbourhood. Studies are for the evening, after supper, and then the nighttime readings with Hans. They are however, living in times when Germany is at war, and the idyll doesn’t last. Three events in succession lead to Liesel and the Hubermanns living on the edge of the knife for a long time. The first occurs during Hitler’s birthday, when the Hubermanns’ children come to visit them. The son fights with Hans, calling him a coward for not supporting Hitler and walks out.
The second is on the same day. A large procession and a bonfire of banned books is planned as a celebration, and all citizens must attend compulsorily, with the children in their respective Hitler Youth brigades. During the book burning, a conversation between Hans and Liesel has him slapping her for the first and the last time as she publicly and loudly states her hatred for Hitler; the slap being more of a warning to not say it in front of anyone than for the content. The bonfire also gives the book thief her second opportunity; a barely singed book survives beneath the ashes and is spotted by the eagle-eyed Liesel. Secreted home under her Hitler Youth uniform, it becomes the newest addition to the night reads. Sure that no one has seen her, she fails to notice the mayor’s wife watching her from a shadowed alleyway.
In the lull before the third event, Liesel is given the responsibility of delivering the clean laundry by herself. As she delivers the mayor’s clothes, his wife invites her into their library; it is the best place Liesel has been in, and it is the beginning of a new ritual where she brings the laundry and then spends hours sitting and reading in the book filled room. It is also the time when she and Rudi join a gang of boys in Molching, stealing from the orchards and farms around to supplement their meagre diets at home, leading to many misadventures with enraged farmers. Liesel is the only girl allowed to join and is proud of the fact.
The third event when it occurs, is explosive, beginning with the arrival of Max Vandenburg at their doorstep. Max is a Jew whose father and Hans had served together in the Great War. Hans survived, Max’s father did not, and when Hans visited his widow he left his address with her in case she needed any help. Fast forward to 1940; Max is in hiding, his entire family has been taken away to the camps, and all he has is Hans’ note. The friend hiding him approaches Hans just after his argument with his son, and he agrees to help Max in whatever way he can, which is how Max lands at their house with a copy of Mein Kampf and a small suitcase of clothes.
It is the beginning of a dangerous dual life lived by the Hubermanns. Weakened by the hiding and the travel, Max falls ill and spends the first few days sleeping in the extra bed in Liesel’s room. The girl is equal parts fascinated by and scared of this stranger at first, but as she helps nurse him back to health, she starts looking upon Max as her special friend. The friendship is cemented when Max, a streetfighter, gives her tips on punches and she in turn reads to him from her collection of books. As he recovers he moves into their basement, coming up into the kitchen only at night. Worried initially that Liesel might accidentally reveal Max’s presence to people, the Hubermanns are relieved when she takes his security more seriously than they do, keeping his presence a secret even from Rudi.
As the world around them descends into more and more madness, Liesel and Max create an oasis of sanity in the basement where she spends most of her time when she is at home. She shares her experiences with him, everything from her football games with Rudi and the other children to her visits to the mayor’s wife’s library. Max reciprocates by telling her stories he has read, and knowing her love for reading, creates a small book for her as a special treat. The book, titled The Standover Man, becomes one of her favourites, ending up in the book she herself writes.
A crack in Liesel’s world; the mayor’s wife informs her that Rosa’s services would no longer be required by them, and the angry Liesel refuses to spend time in the library any more. She does however, decide that stealing books from the library would be a fitting act of revenge and aided by Rudi, proceeds to do so. Unknown to her, the mayor’s wife sees her, and the next time she comes, she finds a dictionary, a thesaurus, a plate of cookies and a letter imploring her to take them with her. It becomes a tacit agreement which neither acknowledges or speaks about, with Rudi getting the benefit of the cookies.
In the winter of that year, Max falls ill again. The cold and damp basement is not fit for a person to live in, and he is once more moved to the extra bed where he lies in a coma like sleep for days. The distraught Liesel at first refuses to leave the house, agreeing only when Rosa promises to tell her the minute Max wakes up. Once outside, she brings him small gifts, things she finds or observes in the streets, talking to his sleeping form, describing her days. When he finally wakes and starts recuperating, the Hubermanns decide not to have him stay in the basement any more than necessary.
Unfortunately, it becomes more necessary for him to stay there. The bombing raids over Germany increase in frequency and intensity, and when the air raid siren sounds, everyone must go to the shelters; everyone except Max who needs to hide in the Hubermanns basement of inadequate depth. They have a close call when Party officials are examining the basements of every house on the street to designate safe ones, but Liesel’s quick thinking gives Max enough time to conceal himself. During the raids, Liesel takes to reading to the assembled people, keeping them calm as the bombs drop on the streets. As the proud Hans mentions this to Max, he gets the idea for another book for her, which he calls The Wordshaker.
Their carefully balanced routine is shattered by Hans’ unthinking kindness. Molching is on the route to Dachau, and the Jewish inmates are at times made to walk down the main road towards the camp. During one such forced march, an old inmate stumbles and falls. Hans, in full view of everyone, reaches out to help him and is hit by the SS guards for his efforts. He is helped back home by Liesel and Rudi who are in the crowd, and only then does he realize the predicament he has put all of them and Max in. There will be retaliation for his actions, and Max will be the unintended casualty. As they talk about it, Max understands what he must do and that very night he leaves the house.
The plan is for him to stay hidden for a few days until it is safe for him to return. The Hubermanns wait with bated breath, expecting the SS or the Gestapo to come into their house any minute. As nothing of the sort happens, Hans feels brave enough to meet Max at the rendezvous only to find a short message from him where he tells Hans they have already done enough for him and he cannot in good conscience put them in more danger. He will take his chances hiding elsewhere. Liesel is inconsolable, but the next blow lands soon after. The reprisal against Hans doesn’t come in the form of an arrest, it comes as a conscription order; he is to join the ranks of the German army.
Rudi’s father is conscripted along with Hans for refusing the Nazis; they want Rudi to join a Party run school because of his athletic prowess. As the two leave for their training and deployment, Liesel finds herself becoming the rock which anchors both the maudlin Rosa and the enraged Rudi, while she finds solace in her books. It prompts Rosa to give her Max’s gift early. The Wordshaker, a story of the power of words and the beauty of friendship, serves as her inspiration to start writing and gets included in her own tale along with The Standover Man.
The two friends also embark upon a dangerous exercise; seething with the injustice meted out to their fathers, they await the next march through the town, and when it comes, they are ready. Armed with stale bread smuggled from their own tables, they break off pieces and throw it in the path of the marching captives, much to their delight. They run away upon discovery, suffering nothing worse than a boot to the backside, deciding to do it all over again the next time. Liesel has an ulterior motive for continuing; she is searching for Max among the marchers, and yet not seeing him in the ranks gives her hope that he may still be free.
Months pass, with Liesel reading, writing, spending time in the library and with Rudi, and then there is a letter from Hans. Deployed as part of the Luftwaffen Sondereinheit in the city of Essen, he broke his leg during an assignment and is being sent back home to recuperate, after which he will be working out of an office in Munich. It is the best news Liesel and Rosa have heard in a while, and when he arrives there is the sound of laughter in the Hubermann household after a long time. They settle into their old ways, with Hans commuting to the city and back by train and spending their evenings together.
The brief tranquility is destroyed about three months after Hans’ return; there is another forced march through Molching, and this time Max is there. The girl and the streetfighter recognize each other, and the too-brief reunion in the middle of the street is brutally broken apart by the SS guards with their boots and whips. Her last memory of Max is of the proud, bloodied man walking to his death with his head held high. The battered Liesel refuses to go home, waiting instead at the train station for Hans to return. She is accompanied by the ever-loyal Rudi, and he hears the story of Max from her for the first time, never revealing to anyone that he knows. When Hans arrives, they walk back home together, bound by their sorrow and love for Max.
She takes to spending more and more time in the basement, finding comfort in the memories of Max and writing her story. It is this act that saves her life a month later; there is a bombing raid but no warning, and the whole of Molching is caught unawares. Liesel’s street takes the brunt of it, with the sleeping Hans and Rosa and Rudi not even aware of what killed them. As the Luftwaffen Sondereinheit reaches the wreckage of the Hubermanns’ house, they hear a tapping coming from the blocked basement and rescue the only survivor on the street, a 14-year-old girl who proceeds to cry her heart out sitting next to the bodies of her parents and her best friend.
Afterwards, Liesel is taken in by the mayor’s wife, and when Rudi’s father comes home after the war ends, she helps him in his tailor shop. Their efforts to locate Max are fruitless, but one day, he walks into the shop; the feisty streetfighter has survived Dachau. Together, they traverse the long, hard road to healing, and she migrates to Australia where she spends the rest of her life. Death talks of his last meeting with her, when he finally gets the chance to show her the book she wrote, and he picked up from the bombed-out street. As she picks it up and reads her own story, Death’s parting words to her are, “I am haunted by humans.”
As is the case with simple tales, The Book Thief is hard-hitting in its very simplicity. Zusak’s use of Death as the narrator emphasizes the physicality of human mortality at every step, and his presence as he takes the main characters away, rather than diminishing them, empowers the way they lived and were. Liesel, Hans, Rosa, Rudi, Max, they all stand for innocence lost and regained, for courage amid fear, for resilience in the face of adversity, for hope in the presence of despair and ultimately for love, pure, undemanding love.
There is also strong symbolism throughout the book, where words stand for freedom, power, and expression. The Nazis burning books seek to suppress freedom and isolate power, but Liesel liberates them through the act of her theft, and through her gradual metamorphosis where words become her allies and weapons. As she writes towards the end of her own book, “I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”