The Book Thief

by Markus Zusak

Both intimate and sweeping, Markus Zusak’s unforgettable novel is set just... read more

Both intimate and sweeping, Markus Zusak’s unforgettable novel is set just before and during World War II, among everyday German people living in a Munich suburb. The focal point of his story is Liesel, a young girl being placed in foster care as the story opens. Her mother, unknown to Liesel, faces imprisonment—and probable death—for being a communist. Liesel’s foster mother, Rosa, has a brisk manner and foul mouth but it eventually becomes clear that it’s all just a mask, protection for her soft and tender heart. By contrast, Liesel’s foster father, Hans, has a goodness that is immediate and shining. He patiently teaches Liesel to read, and words—those written, those read, those spoken, and those left unsaid—become one of the defining forces in Liesel’s life. As the war escalates, Liesel becomes a collaborator in a family secret: they are harboring a Jewish man named Max in their basement. Liesel can tell no one about Max, not even her best friend, Rudy, the free-spirited boy next door who dreams of being Jesse Owens and has loved Liesel from the moment they met. But she does tell Max about Rudy and other things happening in her life, brightening his dark basement days and nights with stories; a gift that he ultimately returns. When Liesel starts stealing books from the library of the mayor’s wife, a woman immersed in grief over the loss of her son in the last war, her thievery is a bold, decisive act in a world where much is spinning out of control. Some people in Liesel’s neighborhood are Nazi sympathizers. Others, like Rudy’s parents, follow all the rules in the futile hope they won’t draw attention to themselves or their family. Yet many in their town willingly participate in book burning, and many come out to watch the ruthless forced march of Jewish prisoners on the road to Dachau, all but a handful seemingly unmoved by a scene that is, or should be, unbearable. How can human nature be explained? That question, and humanity itself, haunts the novel’s narrator: Death. His job is to gather the souls of the dead, and while he does not pass judgment he is far from unmoved by all he sees. In Liesel’s story, which embraces so many other lives, he—and we—find everything that human beings are capable of enduring, inflicting, bestowing, and achieving: from sorrow, sadness, and cruelty beyond comprehension to incredible compassion, kindness, and joy. It offers both despair and hope for humanity. A literary masterpiece that will engage older teens and adults, The Book Thief’s exquisite prose reveals extraordinary characters caught up in inexplicable times, and illuminates the worst and best of who we are. (Age 15 and older)

© Cooperative Children's Book Center, Univ. of Wisconsin - Madison, 2007

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