So I finally finished Markus Zusak's The Book Thief (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006). At 550 pages, this historical novel seemed a daunting task when I first received a copy of it in the mail. You'll recall, I am a self-described slow-as-molasses reader, perhaps the slowest reader of all time. Anyhow, back to the book:
In the brief Prologue to The Book Thief, the narrator, Death, introduces himself ("I am all bluster-- / I am not violent. / I am not malicious. / I am a result."), the colors of this story (red, white, and black), and the book thief, Liesel Meminger, one of the survivors, among the few "left behind." Death then invites us, "If you feel like it, come with me"; furthermore, he asks us to listen to this story, and he'll "show us something."
Following, in part, is what the narrator shows us: Liesel and her younger brother are being transported to a foster home by their own mother, who is incapable of caring for them. We find out later Liesel's mother and father have been labeled Communists by the Nazi party, the mother must abandon her children in order to try and save their lives. En route, the boy dies, and graveside, Liesel begins her life-long book thievery, taking a book a gravedigger has dropped in the snow. The book? The Grave Digger's Handbook: A 12-Step Gide to Grave-Digging Success. Ironic is her inability to read, but she somehow feels the power of words withing the covers.
Eventually, the girl (whose dark brown eyes were "dangerous eyes"; "You didn't really want brown eyes in Germany around that time.") is dropped off at 33 Himmel Street in Molching just outside of Munich at the Hubermann's. Hans paints for a living, enjoys rolling his own smokes, and plays the accodion. During WWI, he cheated Death, and he cheats Death a second time during the Second World War. He is the one who stays up bedside with Liesel after she awakens from a recurring nightmare, every morning at 2. Rosa is built like a wardrobe, spews forth cursewords one right after another, manages to ruin soup even, and in her own way, loves her husband and her new daughter deeply and passionately, in spite of not showing any emotion except anger.
Living in a new town, in a new home, with strangers who ask her to call them Mama and Papa, is rough going at first. She meets Rudy, who idolizes Jesse Owens, the U.S. track and field Olympic champion, and a few other kids, both good and bad sorts. She plays soccer and joins a den of thieves. Because of Hans' life before 33 Himmel and promises he made to a fellow soldier, the Hubermans and Liesel take in a Jew who lives in basement for the longest of times, until he is forced to leave this haven filled with music, warmth, and stories.
Liesel learns some powerful lessons during her stay at 33 Himmel, among them that she loves Hans and Rosa sincerely, loves Max, the Jew beyond understanding, and regrets not having admitted her love for Rudy when it was still possible to do so.
In the end, Death states, "I am haunted by humans." What haunts me is this powerful work of art. Listen: you've got to get a copy and read this before you read anything else.