IF A NOVEL is labeled “Harry Potter and the Holocaust” by the New York Times, it can only mean that it is probably worth looking into.

The novel is The Book Thief, by Australian novelist Markus Zusak. Unlike the author’s first few contemporary novels which carried with them the elements of the fantastic, such as I Am the Messenger, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, and Getting the Girl, this new book sets itself in a totally different league and is considered Zusak’s debut as a historical fictionist.

The Book Thief follows the story of Liesel Meminger as she comes of age amid the tumult of Nazi Germany. It is 1939, and Liesel, the daughter of a communist rebel, is placed by Hitler’s supporters in a foster home just outside Munich. Her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, barely get by, but they try to give her the best life despite their meager earnings.

Liesel is illiterate, and when Hans finds out, he teaches her how to read. But all is not well in the town, as the war erupts. By then, Liesel can read well, and she starts filching books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, and wherever else she can. These books would later on help her save a man’s life—Max Vandenburg, a Jew whose father saved Hans’ life in the previous World War.

Liesel’s storytelling and constant attention revitalizes Max, who was dying when he first came to the Hubermanns. However, the dangers of hiding a Jew during these times become evident, and Liesel is once again faced with the questions left when she first came to the Hubermanns: why is she left by the people she love, and what will become of them all.

Tale of two pretentious creatures

The first thing one notices about The Book Thief is the wordplay. A master of metaphors, Zusak evokes one memorable image after the other, but the story is never saturated with them. The Nazi period in Germany is always a delicate subject, but the author deals with it in a matter-of-fact, often humorous, manner. This is seen when Rosa frets over what happens if Max dies, and she says she could not very well drag his corpse out of the house and announce to the neighbors, “You would never guess what we found in our basement today!”

Also, the narrator of the story is not Liesel, but an omniscient Death. The author creates an almost human personification of death; an old sentient being, alternately tired, awed, and exasperated with mankind. This is a brilliant stroke for Zusak, and his Death’s point is made clear—Death was everywhere during those days, so who else would be fit to tell the story? This point of view lets readers see the events of the period in another light.

One of the reasons Zusak wrote The Book Thief was his desire to show a lesser-known side of Nazi Germany. According to Zusak on his website, there were also Germans who hid Jewish friends at the time, and Liesel and the Hubermanns were among those people.

A smaller but just as important issue is Liesel’s compulsive book stealing. Hans tries to talk to her about it, but fails to stop his foster child from taking books. It is ironic that Liesel would grow to love books so much, yet she would steal them, sometimes indiscriminately.


In bookstores and online catalogs, The Book Thief is categorized as a novel for young adults, but Zusak’s wry and figurative style makes this suitable for older readers as well. It is free of sensationalism: Death does not glamorize his job, he tells it as it is. Liesel is not given to bursts of self-pity. Zusak’s plain storytelling says that war is a fact, a circumstance. It is not something to be glorified.


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