Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Book Thief

The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zuzak
Alfred A. Knopf, 2005
550 pages

This is one of the most unusual books I've ever read, and I have a feeling it's going to be one of the most unforgettable. Set in Nazi Germany, it's narrated by Death (a grim reaper) and follows a few years in the lives of some very interesting characters. Most notable is the title character, a young girl named Liesel who goes to live with foster parents in a small town near Munich after losing her brother to illness and being surrendered to the state by her mother, who for reasons we don't know, can no longer care for her. It's at her brother's funeral that Liesel "steals" her first book, a gravedigger's manual that she finds by the grave site. Although she can't read, this little book is the first of many that will come into her possession.

Her foster parents are a middle-aged couple whose children have already left the home. Rosa is Liesel's hard-assed, foul-mouthed foster mother who's really a marshmallow inside; Hans is her accordion-playing foster father who can't get work as a painter because he's not a member of the Nazi party. Their interesting assortment of neighbors on Himmelstrasse (Heaven Street) includes a hardcore "candy Nazi" who runs the corner store; the widow-next-door with whom Rosa has argued for so long, they no longer remember why; and Liesel's best friend Rudy, a runner who paints himself black and pretends to be Jesse Owens. There's also a young Jewish prizefighter, Max; and the Mayor's Wife, whose home has the largest library Liesel has ever seen.

Times are hard, but they're about to get harder. This is a story about grace and doing what you know is right even in the face of enormous pressures. Nearly all the characters will be tested and forced to make decisions that have huge ramifications on not just themselves but their families, neighbors, and communities. You will forget that Death is the narrator . . . until he reminds you.

Disregard the fact that this book is categorized as a Young Adult book. I don't think young adults will get nearly as much from it as us older adults. You need to read this book. Go get it. Now.

Rating: 5 stars. Hands-down the best book I've read this year . . . so far.