Let’s just say from the beginning here that I expected this book to be tragic. If the story was missing an underlying weight and sadness, I would have been repulsed. For how could one have lived in this time period and not been pressed to choose a side? To witness the decimation of human life and not be changed? Yes, there’s a certain amount of tragedy that’s called for in a story like this. I didn’t expect that all of the characters that I met on Himmel Street would come to the end of the book unscathed.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. How about a little summary first?
When Liesel Meminger is taken in by Hans and Rosa Hubermann, she has witnessed the death of her brother and been parted from her communist mother for her own good. At her brother’s grave, she picks up a book on the ground–a discarded copy of The Gravediggers’ Handbook –and carries it with her to her new home in Molching, Germany, just as the stage is being set for World War II.
While Rosa cares for Liesel in the best way she knows how…with harsh words belying her large heart…the calm, steadying presence of Hans every night when she awakes from her nightmares offers her an escape she never thought possible. Words.
As Hans teaches Liesel to read in the middle of the night and her life on Himmel Street begins to take shape, complete with her partner-in-crime neighbor Rudy, her world becomes more solid as the world at large becomes more unstable.
A habit of book thieving, a basement dwelling Jewish man named Max, and Hans’ accordion playing carry Liesel through a time in history when words determined life and death.
Things I liked about the book before I picked it up:
- Everyone and their mother endorsed it. It lived on the New York Times bestseller list for 230 weeks (um that’s a long time, folks). And I’d heard about the book many times from various friends before I was finally compelled to acquire myself a used copy. Clearly, the writing was bound to be good.
- I’ve always been fascinated by this time in history. Maybe it’s because I loved Brock and Bodie Thoene’s Zion Covenant novels, but when I had a choice in school, I chose to write about World War II.
Things I liked about the book as I read it:
- I like that the main perspective here was a German one. The novel offers insight into a fictional version of what feels like a normal, average existence for someone living in Germany during this time period. Never in the book was Hitler heard from directly, though his presence is on every page. You feel the economic turn effect the characters. You feel the lack of choice that they had in decisions about how their government went about its business. You feel their fear when the air raid siren splits the air. And you feel like you could easily have been one of them.
- The gorgeous writing. I’m serious. Some of those sentences turned me inside out and outside in. Somehow, he managed to capture the hope, the grittiness of life, and wretched heartbreak without making the book oppressive. A terribly impressive feat, if you ask me. And how appropriate that a book about the powers of words would depict them so hauntingly.
- The relationship between Liesel and Hans. Their bond was so achingly beautiful. When he sat up with her every single night as she woke screaming from the dreams that watching her brother die gave her, I fell in love with Hans Hubermann. He single-handedly delivered Liesel (and me) a picture of what unconditional love is.
- The relationship between Liesel and Max. Boy, this story line really helped me get through some of the longer portions of this book. The impact of Max on Liesel and Liesel on Max was heartrending and precious–and the uncertainty of Max’s end made their friendship even more poignant.
Things I did not like about the book as I read it:
The narrator. I hated that the narrator of this book was Death. At the onset, I was okay with the whole thing. It was, after all, a very engaging idea to get a birds-eye view throughout the whole book. I understand why the author did it. But I found that Death’s narrative was cumbersome past a certain point. Why? I’ll tell you.
1. This viewpoint into the story kept the main characters at arms length. I was hearing Liesel, Hans, and Max’s story from a third party and I felt it all the way through the book.
2. Death kept interrupting the flow of the book to bring me certain tidbits of information. I really hated not being able to fully immerse myself in the story without constantly being ripped out of it to take in the asides being thrust in my face.
3. Death kept telling me things that hadn’t happened yet and then would rewind and tell me the backstory. Can I tell you how much I genuinely HATED this plot device? It would have been fine had the author utilized it once or twice, but it was liberally peppered throughout. And it drove me batty because this way of telling the story totally removed all the anticipation along the way. For example, Death would tell me that a character died. And then would go back and tell me how. This type of thing occurs over and over and over again. Blech. HATE. IN. MY. HEART. for this method of writing.
Conclusion [TEENSY TINY SPOILER ALERT!]
Though I wept through the ending, I felt it was an appropriate way to finish the story. The book was slow and at times meandering, and if Death had existed stage left after the prologue, I think I would be raving about The Book Thief to anyone in earshot. But the points above keep me from giving it my whole-hearted support. At the end of the day, the merits of the book outweighed its weaknesses and my tears were proof that the author managed to evoke emotion. So, all in all a good book. But not one that I’ll be returning to over and over again. Once was enough.