The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
It’s just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery …
Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak’s groundbreaking novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist – books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau.
This is an unforgettable story about the ability of books to feed the soul.
Grade 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.
(By Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA)
Liesel Meminger is a Book Thief, living with a foster family in Germany during World War Two. Torn from everything she’s known, her foster father shows her the power of words as the two of them share late night reading sessions of The Grave Digger’s Handbook. Her love of books ties her to others, including the mayor’s wife and Max, the Jew the family hides in the basement.
My own words escape me as I try to recount the beauty of this book in a short review. Rarely have I read a book as moving, as profound, as this one. Narrated by Death, this story is one that crawls under your skin and reverberates your soul with its images of Nazi Germany, friendship, and loss. The images stirred through Death’s telling are so vivid, so wonderful, so tragic. Zusak has a masterful command of language and I was astounded by the way his words brought Liesel and her world to life. We follow Liesel over the years as she learns the true meaning of family through her caring new Papa and her friendships with Max and Rudy, the boy next door who idolizes Jesse Owens.
Just a small list of images that will stay with me forever:
- Liesel reading to the neighbors sitting terrified in a basement waiting for the bombs to fall around them
- A snowball fight in a basement
- Mama arriving at school to “yell” at Liesel
- A boy with candlelit hair standing up to a Nazi Youth Leader
- Death gathering up the souls of children softly
- The story of a Word Shaker
- An accordion player accepting a cigarette as payment
There are not enough words within me to express the beauty of this book. It will move you to laughter and tears, often at the same time. This one is a keeper that I will revisit frequently in the future. It has changed my soul. Highly, highly, highly recommended.
(By Tamela Mccann)
About the Author
Australian author Markus Zusak grew up hearing stories about Germany during WWII, about the bombing of Munich and about Jews being marched through his mother’s small, German town. He always knew it was a story he wanted to tell.
“We have these images of the straight-marching lines of boys and the ‘Heil Hitlers’ and this idea that everyone in Germany was in it together. But there still were rebellious children and people who didn’t follow the rules and people who hid Jews and other people in their houses. So there’s another side to Germany,” said Zusak in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald.
At the age of 30, Zusak has already asserted himself as one of today’s most innovative and poetic novelists. With the publication of The Book Thief, he is now being dubbed a “literary phenomenon” by Australian and U.S. critics.
Q&A with the author:
How did you become a writer?
When I was growing up, I wanted to be a house painter like my father, but I was always screwing up when I went to work with him. I had a talent for knocking over paint and painting myself into corners. I also realized fairly quickly that painting bored me. When I was a teenager, I read some books that brought me totally into their worlds. One was The Old Man and the Sea and another was What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. When I read those books, I thought, “That’s what I want to do.” It took seven years to get published and there were countless daily failures, but I’m glad those failures and rejections happened. They made me realise that what I was writing just wasn’t good enough, so I made myself improve.
Do you follow a set routine when you write?
I basically have two routines. The first one is the non-lazy routine, where I get up and work from about 7am and aim to finish by 11:30. That usually sees me through till noon or twelve-thirty (with some time-wasting in between). Then I’ll take a long break and do a few more hours in the afternoon. The lazy routine usually starts at 10am and I’ll write longer into the afternoon. The only time these routines really change is at the start or end of a book, when I’m more likely to work at night. I can’t face starting a book early in the morning purely because self-belief levels are at their lowest for me when I wake up. When I’m finishing a book, I will stay up longer and work through the night, mainly out of desperation to finally get it done.
How did you come to write I Am The Messenger?
I was sitting in a park one night eating fish and chips and saw a bank with a fifteen minute parking zone out the front, and I thought, “Fifteen minutes, that’s not very long, every time I go the bank it takes a lot longer than that.” I then thought, “What if you were in that bank when it was being robbed and your car was out in the fifteen minute parking zone? How would you get out to move your car to avoid getting a fine?” That gave me the bungled bank robbery scene that led to everything else in the book.
What do you do to get away from writing?
Living in Sydney, I’ve taken the chance to start surfing again. One of my best memories of growing up is catching my first proper wave and surfing across it and my brother cheering at me from the shore. Many years later, I’ve started up again and I’m really loving it, as long as the waves are small enough! I also watch a lot of movies, especially when I’m struggling with a story I’m working on. I like watching the same ones over and over again, so I half watch and half think about the story.
Lastly, where do you get your ideas from?
I used to lie about this, but now I actually know. I started writing when I was sixteen. I’m thirty now. I get my ideas from fourteen years of thinking about it.
13 Facts about Markus Zusak:
1.He has severe troubles writing biographies about himself because he doesn’t find himself particularly inspiring.
2.He lives in Sydney near the Royal National Park, where he has lunch with the local deer, the kookaburras (a very tough brand of laughing birds) and other creatures.
3.He is a dog person, but he has two cats, Bijoux and Brutus. He named the second one.
4.His middle name is Frank. (When he hated the name Markus, his brother and one of his sisters suggested he use his middle name: Clearly, Frank was not really a step in the right direction.)
5.His three favorite books are: 1. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges
2. The Half Brother by Lars Saabye Christensen
3. My Brother Jack by George Johnston
6.The last book he read was Werewolves in their Youth by Michael Chabon, and the book he is currently reading is Ulysses by James Joyce.
7.In 2005, he attempted to read 52 books. He is writing a book about this ridiculous reading challenge and calling it 53 Killers. People ask him, “Why fifty-three and not fifty-two?”
8.His three favorite movies are:
1. Amelie by John Pierre Juenet
2. The Big Lebowski by the Cohen Brothers
3. Run Lola Run by Tom Tykwer
(And although it’s not a favorite, he also has a soft spot for The
9.The last movies he’s seen are A Very Long Engagement and The Motorcycle Diaries.
10.If he could meet anyone who ever lived, he would choose Michelangelo.
11.He got the idea for I am the Messenger when he was sitting in a park one night eating fish and chips and saw a bank with a fifteen minute parking zone out front. He thought, “Fifteen minutes, that’s not very long, every time I go to the bank it takes a lot longer than that.” He then thought, “What if you were in that bank when it was being robbed and your car was out in the fifteen minute parking zone? How the hell would you get out to move your car to avoid a fine?” (That’s exactly what happens at the start of the book.)
12.He is riddled with self-doubt about I am the Messenger but is glad he wrote it because he loves the Doorman (the dog in the book).
13.His favorite number is thirteen.