Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is more than just another novel about World War II and the Holocaust, depicting the plight of those in concentration camps or in hiding and those who helped people singled out for extinction. It does tell a piece of their stories. It tells the story of a German family hiding a Jew as the war picks up pace. While Hitler and the Nazis were at work, while many Germans found themselves falling in line, this novel reminds us that there are many forms of suffering and although the allied forces (whatever their reasons for joining the war) ultimately stopped the extermination of an entire people, they caused destruction too. Because that is what happens during a war. There exist noble causes worth fighting for, but war always leads to a lot of destruction before rebuilding and healing start.
Following the story of a young person through World War II is hardly original. It makes sense. They weren’t around for the World War I and wouldn’t have a very comprehensive understanding of how the reparations from that war could lead to a society in which a party like the Nazis was not only possible, but also thrived. They accept the teachings of their struggling parents but are also impressionable and can question things in ways that adults tend to push aside.
What makes Markus Zusak’s approach unique and original isn’t the protagonist but the narrator, for The Book Thief is not told by Liesel Meminger. It is narrated by Death. I have heard so many recommendations for this novel but no one had mentioned this little fact to me. I’m a sucker for creative twists like this and while some might find the idea of Death as a narrator morbid, I would have read this a lot sooner if I’d known. I found the structure of the whole novel to me amazing and different. It helped to set this book apart from what can be a predictable subgenre.
Aside from the incredible narrative voice that Death proves to be (a voice that reminds me of the grim reapers from Dead Like Me but a little more somber and serious), using Liesel’s incidents of biblio-thievery as focal points for constructing the plot and narrative also distinguish this novel. In many ways, this is a tale that has been told many times before. It is a tale that will continue to be told because it’s not something that should ever be forgotten because this novel also has the older generations’ perspectives.
While foster child Liesel processes the confusing and traumatic events that have already happened in her young life, her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, represent the generation that fought and survived that first war, a generation that was less susceptible to Nazi rhetoric because they could remember a time before. Their children are grown and have left home. They are the generation raised during the hardships of rebuilding in a hostile European climate. They are the generation Hitler spoke to, the generation who heard what they wanted and needed to hear, who were most likely to let themselves get talked into committing atrocities.