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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Do you ever have those books that you’ve been meaning to read for years and years, but when the time comes to start a new book, you look at it on your shelf and think, “maybe next time”?  That is The Book Thief for me.  It’s been recommended to me since the time it was published (2007, for those of you who are interested to know just how long my procrastination can extend) and I’ve always wanted to read it.  I guess I just always wanted to read something else more.  Then, I started my teachers-only summer book club and sure enough, most of us had been putting this book off.  We vowed that at last, we would read it!

So here’s a brief outline of what it was that “we” read:  A young girl, Liesel, and her brother are being sent to foster care.  She doesn’t realize it yet, but it’s the beginning of Hitler’s power in Germany, and her parents are what Hitler considered unsavory characters (not Jews – Communists).  En route, her brother dies and in the commotion, Liesel notices a book has been left behind in the snow.  She takes it, starting a long career as, you guessed it, a book thief.  One problem: she can’t read.

Her foster father discovers this and begins teaching her.  As Liesel’s hunger for books grows stronger, so does Hitler’s power.  The story changes as Hitler’s power grows – they harbor a young Jewish man who becomes part of Liesel’s reading and writing journey.  Ultimately, the book focuses less on Hitler’s atrocities and more on the effects not on his Jewish prisoners, but on every day Germans under his rule.

In case you were wondering, by the time my book club met, only one person had finished the book.  In my defense, I was only 12 pages to the end, and finished it later that night.

I may be acting a little unfairly here.  As a young adult novel, The Book Thief is good – though long.  I can imagine several of my students absolutely gobbling up, and that is exactly the attitude I want when selecting a new book.  It has a lot of creative elements that I feel worked really well – having Death as the narrator, for example.  The biggest challenge for The Book Thief in my opinion is that it’s a book about the Holocaust.  And while it’s a fascinating and worthy subject, there are a LOT of books in this genre, and the competition is fierce because a lot of them are done incredibly well.  While I didn’t dislike The Book Thief, I did feel, at times, that it was simply more of the same.

Here’s what I did like: Death as the narrator.  This was a really cool creative touch, and it was done in a sophisticated and new way.  It wasn’t morbid or dependent on cliché – Death was insightful, neutral, and surprisingly human.  I loved that.  Also interesting was the focus on German characters throughout.  So many books in this genre focus on the unbelievable cruelty in the concentration camps and while this aspect can’t be ignored in The Book Thief, I think it was a bold and wise decision to step away from it because it’s so prevalent in this type of literature that it can often become desensitizing to the reader – exactly what the author would likely want to avoid.  Instead, Zusak focuses on the German neighbors in Liesel’s village – and artfully exposes that not all Germans were evil, or even agreed with Hitler’s views.  Some did, for valid (though misguided) reasons.  And some were just plain evil.  I like literature as an exploration of the human condition and Zusak captured the complexity of the situation and the people involved extremely well.

Overall, I’d give this book 3 stars.  Because it’s intended for young adults, it didn’t have quite the sophistication or pull for me that I prefer, but it is an interesting read, and one that I predict most teenagers will really get a lot out of.  ★★★

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