In the hands of Australian writer Markus Zusak, Death is a surprisingly enjoyable omniscient narrator. Sure, Death does his job, and unapologetically so: "I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. . . . Just don't ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me." In Zusak's latest young adult novel, The Book Thief, Death doesn't gleefully gather up the newly dead. Rather, he's resigned to the fact that he can never take a vacation, and he learns to cope with pained "leftover humans" by acutely observing and eloquently describing the colors that saturate the sky when he carries away a soul.
Zusak, author of four previous teen novels (including 2006 Printz Honor Book I Am the Messenger), put aside his house-cleaning chores to talk with BookPage from his home in Sydney. He says of The Book Thief, "When I first started writing, Death was a lot more macabre—he was enjoying himself too much. Nine months later, I thought of the last line [of the book] and decided that was the way to do it. It would be ironic—we're so scared of death, but what if it was the other way around as well?"
Thus, Death infuses his storytelling with equal parts wit and compassion, and a keen interest in young Liesel Meminger: he is fascinated when she steals a copy of The Grave Digger's Handbook from her brother's gravesite. She carries that book with her to her new foster home, and it is the first in a series of thefts and literary explorations. As Liesel's world becomes ever more strange and frightening, books steady her and stealing (from a Nazi book-burning, from the mayor's wife's library) empowers her, even as her friends are recruited for Hitler Youth and her family hides a Jewish man, Max, in their basement. Her books are her secret, and even Hitler's footmen cannot take away the stories she so eagerly absorbs.
The author's parents grew up in WWII Europe and throughout his childhood told and retold stories these years. "Two stories really affected me," he explains. "My mother talked about Munich being bombed. Everything was red, and the sky was on fire. The other was about seeing Jewish people being marched to Dachau. A boy ran out to give a man piece of bread, and a soldier whipped both the man and the boy. I thought I'd write a 100-page novella around those incidents, but the research started building until I had a whole other mass of things."
The Book Thief grew to 500-plus pages, but Zusak's unusual, compelling tale renders page count irrelevant. Comedy takes turns with suspense and sadness, and even as the family's security is steadily eroded, they create music and art. The text is dotted with bold-faced pronouncements from Death that offer reassurance or inspire contemplation, but the book does not fall prey to sentimentality. Harrowing events are allowed to be so, and interludes of joy are all the more powerful because of the characters' need for even mere filaments of hope.
Zusak says the book is "five percent truth, and 95 percent made up," with some characters loosely based on those who populated his parents' stories. He never went to Germany as a child, he says, "but I knew scenes almost word for word, and wrote them as I pictured them growing up. Last year, I went to Germany to check everything. I did interviews and researched until I couldn't stand it anymore. Research doesn't come naturally to me—in the end, I'm dying to write the story."
In fact, a pivotal vignette within The Book Thief, about Liesel and Max, energized Zusak even after he'd reread the book countless times during the three years it took to write it. "When I was sick and tired of the entire thing, that one story within the others made me think the book was worth publishing."
After all, he points out, "It's the little stories that define us, our existence. And Death is trying to find stories that indicate we're worth it. We are our stories."
Linda Castellitto writes from Raleigh, North Carolina. Copyright 2006 BookPage Reviews.
Horn Book Guide Reviews 2006 Fall
Death itself narrates this deeply affecting tale of young book lover Liesel, her loving foster parents, and the Jew hiding in their basement. They struggle, with their small, poor community, to endure the double-edged dangers of Nazi Germany. Zusak's poignant tribute to words, survival, and their inevitable entwinement is a tour de force to be not just read but inhabited. Copyright 2006 Horn Book Guide Reviews.
Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2006 #2
Death itself narrates this deeply affecting tale of "a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery." It is 1939 when nine-year-old Liesel, on her way to a foster home in Molching, Germany, steals a book -- the first she's ever owned -- from a graveyard. From then through 1943, her life is chronicled in books stolen (from Nazi book burnings; from the mayor's wife), books given (by her foster parents, irascible Rosa and kindly Hans Hubermann; by Max Vandenburg, the Jew hiding in their basement), and books written (her own story, finished in that basement during a devastating air raid). As her relationships and beliefs deepen, Liesel grows into a tough, earnest heroine, convincingly ordinary yet with an extraordinary capacity for caring. The small, poor town of Molching proves an effective microcosm for exploring the double-edged dangers faced by everyday Germans, and Zusak's gift for detail brings its streets and citizens richly to life. As a narrator, Death is startlingly, wrenchingly compassionate, struggling to turn away from the survivors left behind to live with "punctured hearts" and "beaten lungs" yet immeasurably moved by the tenderness they wring from despair -- Liesel building a snowman in the basement with Max; her best friend Rudy placing a teddy bear on the chest of a dying Allied pilot. Exquisitely written and memorably populated, Zusak's poignant tribute to words, survival, and their curiously inevitable entwinement is a tour de force to be not just read but inhabited. Copyright 2006 Horn Book Magazine Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2006 January #2
When Death tells a story, you pay attention. Liesel Meminger is a young girl growing up outside of Munich in Nazi Germany, and Death tells her story as "an attempt--a flying jump of an attempt--to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it." When her foster father helps her learn to read and she discovers the power of words, Liesel begins stealing books from Nazi book burnings and the mayor's wife's library. As she becomes a better reader, she becomes a writer, writing a book about her life in such a miserable time. Liesel's experiences move Death to say, "I am haunted by humans." How could the human race be "so ugly and so glorious" at the same time? This big, expansive novel is a leisurely working out of fate, of seemingly chance encounters and events that ultimately touch, like dominoes as they collide. The writing is elegant, philosophical and moving. Even at its length, it's a work to read slowly and savor. Beautiful and important. (Fiction. 12+) Copyright Kirkus 2006 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Library Media Connection - March 2006
Death hates to admit it, but there are some human stories that distract him, haunt him, and the book thief's story is one of these. Nine-year-old Liesel arrives at the Himmel (Heaven) Street home of foster parents Hans and Rosa in Germany. It is 1939 and Liesel has already stolen her first book. The irony is Liesel cannot read. Haunted by nightmares, it is her gentle foster father, hardly literate himself, who interrupts his own sleep and teaches Liesel to read as she wakes each night. Liesel begins to settle in with the neighborhood, but war and the Fuehrer start to change things. Hans' political beliefs cause him to lose work and the economy causes Rosa to lose customers. Soon they are hiding a young Jewish man in their basement. While Liesel faces the completely ordinary challenges of growing up, extraordinary things are happening in her world that she must learn to deal with and act on based on her own beliefs. The narrative jumps and detours through linear time into foreshadowing and related tangents so that the entire story arc and how it fits together is not completely revealed until the end of the story in 1943. Part Holocaust tale, part coming-of-age story, and part the book thief's story, this title will have readers thinking and talking. Highly Recommended. Melissa Bergin, Library Media Specialist/NBCT, Niskayuna (New York) High School Â© 2006 Linworth Publishing, Inc.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2006 January #5
This hefty volume is an achievement--a challenging book in both length and subject, and best suited to sophisticated older readers. The narrator is Death himself, a companionable if sarcastic fellow, who travels the globe "handing souls to the conveyor belt of eternity." Death keeps plenty busy during the course of this WWII tale, even though Zusak (I Am the Messenger ) works in miniature, focusing on the lives of ordinary Germans in a small town outside Munich. Liesel Meminger, the book thief, is nine when she pockets The Gravedigger's Handbook , found in a snowy cemetery after her little brother's funeral. Liesel's father--a "Kommunist"--is already missing when her mother hands her into the care of the Hubermanns. Rosa Hubermann has a sharp tongue, but Hans has eyes "made of kindness." He helps Liesel overcome her nightmares by teaching her to read late at night. Hans is haunted himself, by the Jewish soldier who saved his life during WWI. His promise to repay that debt comes due when the man's son, Max, shows up on his doorstep. This "small story," as Death calls it, threads together gem-like scenes of the fates of families in this tight community, and is punctuated by Max's affecting, primitive artwork rendered on painted-over pages from Mein Kampf . Death also directly addresses readers in frequent asides; Zusak's playfulness with language leavens the horror and makes the theme even more resonant--words can save your life. As a storyteller, Death has a bad habit of forecasting ("I'm spoiling the ending," he admits halfway through his tale). It's a measure of how successfully Zusak has humanized these characters that even though we know they are doomed, it's no less devastating when Death finally reaches them. Ages 12-up. (Mar.)[Page 70]. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Gr 9 Up -Zusak has created a work that deserves the attention of sophisticated teen and adult readers. Death himself narrates the World War II-era story of Liesel Meminger from the time she is taken, at age nine, to live in Molching, Germany, with a foster family in a working-class neighborhood of tough kids, acid-tongued mothers, and loving fathers who earn their living by the work of their hands. The child arrives having just stolen her first book-although she has not yet learned how to read-and her foster father uses it, The Gravedigger's Handbook , to lull her to sleep when she's roused by regular nightmares about her younger brother's death. Across the ensuing years of the late 1930s and into the 1940s, Liesel collects more stolen books as well as a peculiar set of friends: the boy Rudy, the Jewish refugee Max, the mayor's reclusive wife (who has a whole library from which she allows Liesel to steal), and especially her foster parents. Zusak not only creates a mesmerizing and original story but also writes with poetic syntax, causing readers to deliberate over phrases and lines, even as the action impels them forward. Death is not a sentimental storyteller, but he does attend to an array of satisfying details, giving Liesel's story all the nuances of chance, folly, and fulfilled expectation that it deserves. An extraordinary narrative.-Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA[Page 234]. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.