The Book Thief

This is a book by Markus Zusak I came upon in the local bookstore in the young adult section and bought for my daughter. After reading it within a few days and enjoying very much the story, if not the style, she told me to read it as well. The Book Thief is indeed written for a general audience and has a lot of appealing features, even though I would not rank it as a great book. First, the plot is mostly seen from the point of view of a young girl. Liesel, getting adopted by an ideal—in terms of human standards, not of wealth—foster family in a Bavarian town during WWII. Besides the description of everyday life in Nazi Germany—like the compulsory adhesion to the NSDAP or to the Hitler-Jugend, the persecution and deportation of communists, then of Jews, to the nearby Dachau concentration camp, the draft of younger and older men into the German army— and of the quiet resistance of a few of its citizens—reminding me, at a lesser level, of Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone—, this is a tale about the power of reading and writing, as Liesel discovers throughout the story. She first steals a gravedigger manual to overcome the death of her little brother and learns to read with her foster father with this book. Then she steals another book from a Nazi autodafé, still smoldering—as a first conscious act of resistance because she realises his father was deported as a communist—that she keeps reading and re-reading, overcoming her childhood nightmares. The following books are “stolen” from the mayor’s own library, except that the mayor’s wife is aware of this and encourages Liesel to keep stealing more books from her bookshelves. Liesel also discovers the power of words through reading to Max, a Jewish clandestine hidden by her foster parents in their basement, then to a whole shelter during Allied air raids. The next step is about the power of writing, first with Max writing books by recycling a copy of Mein Kampf—that he used as a cover to travel to Liesel’s parents—, painting over its pages to compose an anti-Nazi book, and then with Liesel writing an autobiography that would eventually save her life when the whole street but her was killed during an air raid. Obviously, The Book Thief is quite allegorical, with Death conducting the story and giving her own point of view, which means characters are idealistic and unrealistic. The stylistic choices made by Zusak may also annoy the reader, with many very short paragraphs, the use of bold fonts and of dictionary entries, the continual intervention of Death and her prescience of events yet to come, and they may even detract young readers from finishing the book, even though the story is grasping enough to hook most of them.

Ps— The Book Thief actually seems to be a best-seller (currently #37 on Amazon!) and I even saw one in the basket of a Vélib’ passing by Champs-Elysées last Friday…

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