Some stories go down smoothly, like rich hot chocolate. The staleness of others causes us to spew them out after one taste. But some tales, like The Book Thief, assault our senses with a complex array of emotional and thematic flavors that leaves us stunned and forever changed.
The novel begins strangely. After all, how often does Death decide to tell you a story? He is not very straightforward as a narrator either, interspersing glimpses of events that take place at the end of the narrative before reaching them at their appointed time in his tale. Yet one thing that does come across from the beginning is how absolutely alien he is from us. Perhaps that is why he is so fascinated and yet disturbed by people. In his own words, he is “haunted by humans.”
Death’s main story begins when nine-year-old Liesel Meminger wakes to watch him take her little brother on the train to Munich. The presence of the Grim Reaper barely registers with her in the panic and grief of the moment, but somehow her life makes an impression on him. Curiosity gets the better of Death and he returns for the boy’s funeral, bows his head with the rest of the small band of mourners, and watches a few minutes later as Liesel drops to her knees, clawing at the icy earth that has stolen her brother until her hands are bloody.
He also sees the young book thief steal her first text, an act of taking back something in lieu of what she has been robbed of. The small, black volume has been accidentally dropped in the snow of the cemetery. Ironically, it is titled The Gravedigger’s Handbook.
The theft of this first book establishes a pattern, although many of the books Liesel “steals” are not taken in the normal fashion. One is snatched from underneath the ashes of other books that have been publicly burned. Others are left for her to steal (once with even a plate of cookies nearby) by a quiet benefactor. Also, she is not the only book thief in the novel. The story Death tells is mainly based on Liesel’s handwritten memoir that he has stolen from her.
Set in Nazi Germany during the war years, Death’s tragic tale focuses primarily on Liesel’s life on Himmel Street in Molching, a community outside of Munich. There she lives with her foster parents, the Hubermanns, and next door to a boy who will become her best friend and partner-in-crime, Rudy Steiner. Throughout her few but defining years on the street, she struggles to learn to read and ultimately develops a passion for words.
At the same time, Liesel journeys from adoring Hitler, like many of the youth of her era, to having a burning hatred for him. She helps her family hide a Jew for a time in their basement, and learns to love him fiercely, like an older brother. Most importantly, she discovers an inner strength of character to do what is right, despite the evil that constantly hovers just outside of Himmel (German for “Heaven”) street.
In a world populated by billions of souls, what does one life, or even a small handful of lives, really matter? Even if you know that your seemingly insignificant acts of loyalty and compassion will barely cause a ripple in the tide of darkness around you, will you still stand up for what is right? These are just two of many thought-provoking questions The Book Thief asks us.
Morally complex, the novel does not attempt to justify the thievery of Liesel and Rudy, but instead shows it as a very human response to the disintegration of ethics surrounding them. That both of them rise above the criminality of most of their peers to actually give back to their community in small ways is a tribute, not only to the parenting they are receiving, but also the divine spark of their consciences.
The book does have a few aspects that can be troubling for some Christian readers. For example, the story includes several instances of profanity and vulgarity. However, unlike what we see in many modern novels, the use of such language in The Book Thief is rarely gratuitous and comes across more as helping to flesh out the characters and time period instead of being merely offensive. Additionally, the use of Death as a complicated being with emotional fiber, as well as other material related to his job and “employer,” are intriguing but hardly theologically sound. Still, as a whole, the book has many more positive elements than negative ones.
Why read such an emotionally wrenching story as The Book Thief? Possibly Franz Kafka, the German-speaking Jewish writer who died a few years before Hitler’s rise to power, put it best: “What we must have are those books that come on us like ill fortune, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us.”
Image copyright Alfred A. Knopf. Review copy obtained from a garage sale.
John E. Roper, in addition to his role as a missionary/pastor/teacher in Africa, has written for USA Today, the Arizona Republic, the Daily Oklahoman, the US Review of Books, and more.