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Books everywhere!  Each wall was armed with overcrowded yet immaculate shelving.  It was barely possible to see the paintwork.  There were all different styles and sizes of lettering on the spines of the black, the red, the gray, the every-colored books.  It was one of the most beautiful things Liesel Meminger had ever seen.

With wonder, she smiled.

That such a room existed!

(from The Book Thief, page 134)

There are very few books that I loved enough to re-read, and as soon as I dried my eyes and turned the last page of The Book Thief back in 2007, I knew that it was a book I could read again and again.  I’m glad that the second time I read this book was aloud to The Girl, as there’s nothing better than sharing one of your favorite books with someone you love and having them enjoy it, too.

The Book Thief is a coming-of-age story set in Nazi Germany.  Liesel Meminger, still grieving her brother’s death, is brought to the home of Hans and Rosa Hubermann on Himmel Street in the fictional town of Molching just outside of Munich.  She arrives with The Gravedigger’s Handbook, a book she stole at her brother’s graveside, but doesn’t know how to read.  Her foster mother, Rosa, comes off a little harsh, but her foster father, Hans, is a kind and gentle man who teaches her to read.  Learning to read opens up a whole new world to Liesel, and while her best friend and partner in crime, Rudy Steiner, is content stealing food, her thievery involves expanding her personal library.

Over the course of World War II, Liesel’s passion for reading grows, at the same time that conditions deteriorate under Hitler’s rule.  Money and food become tight, but Liesel has her books, the love of her parents and Rudy, and her friendship with Max, the Jewish fist fighter hiding in her basement.

What makes The Book Thief unique is its narrator, Death, who is tired of his job — and with the war and the extermination of Jews, he is quite busy.  Death is surprisingly compassionate, haunted by humans, and drawn to the story of the book thief.  How he comes to know Liesel and why her story is so profound are explained over the course of the book.  However, some might think that Death’s narrative style is a bit off-putting, as he often interrupts the mostly linear narrative with a heart-stopping sentence that tells readers what will happen before it actually happens.  For The Girl, it lessened the impact of the book by taking away the element of surprise, but it kept me turning the pages to see how it all played out.

The Book Thief packs a punch by personalizing the experiences of “ordinary” Germans during World War II, Germans who may have belonged to the Nazi Party and dutifully said “Heil Hitler” more out of fear than devotion to the Führer.  Zusak zeroes in on the people of one street in a small town, their squabbles and their hardships.  The novel is even more powerful because of its focus on an innocent young girl who comes of age during all the chaos, a girl who has lost so much already and still has more to lose.

Zusak uses Nazism and book thievery to emphasize the power of words.  Liesel’s most prized possessions are books, particularly the ones made by Max as he comes to terms with his situation and empowers himself through words.  Liesel learns that reading aloud in the bomb shelter during the nightly raids calms the children and adults crammed together, unsure whether they would live or die.  And she comes to understand that without words, Hitler was nothing.

I think I loved this book even more the second time around.  Over the course of 550 pages, you really feel like you know the characters, they feel like your friends and neighbors.  I cried the first time I read it, and I cried even more this time.  I had to stop reading several times to dry my eyes, which provided lots of laughs for The Girl, who insists that books don’t ever make her cry.  (Maybe someday.)

Here’s what The Girl (age 11) had to say about The Book Thief:

*I really liked the book because it was kinda unique to have Death narrate the book.  But I didn’t like how Death gave away big parts before they happened.

*My favorite character was Hans because he was really sweet to Liesel by teaching her to read.  The author gave so much detail on Hans you thought he was your friend.

*I would give this book 5 out of 5 stars.  You think you know all the characters, and the detail drags you into the story.

Have you read The Book Thief?  What did you think?

Book 20 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I purchased my copy of The Book Thief. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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