Revisiting The Book Thief (plus, a movie review)

“It’s just a small story really, about, among other things:
*A girl
*Some words
*An accordionist
*Some fanatical Germans
*A Jewish fist fighter
*And quite a lot of thievery”

I usually mention The Book Thief when asked to list my favorite books. I don’t remember where I heard about the book or why I picked it up, but I read it for the first time in 2009. And while I always mentioned it as a favorite, I knew I had forgotten many of the details. With the movie coming out, I decided to reread the book. Thankfully, the book was just as good as I remembered.

The Book Thief depicts daily life in Nazi Germany through the eyes of Liesel Meminger. Liesel and her brother are given up by their family (who are, it is implied, being persecuted by the Nazis for being communists) into the care of a foster family. However, Liesel’s brother dies on the train journey and is buried quickly in a haphazard ceremony beside the tracks. As the unexpected funeral finishes, Liesel picks up a book that has fallen out of one of the grave digger’s pockets and keeps it for herself. This is her first act of book thievery.

Liesel’s new family consists of Hans and Rosa Hubermann, who struggle to make ends meet due to Hans’s troubled standing with the local Nazi Party. Liesel also befriends the boy next door, Rudy Steiner, a rather incorrigible flirt who dreams of running like Jesse Owens.

When Liesel starts school, it becomes quickly apparent that she doesn’t know how to read. When Hans discovers Liesel’s stolen book, which turns out to be The Grave Digger’s Handbook, he and Liesel begin middle-of-the-night reading lessons using the book, despite the fact that Hans is not a strong reader himself. The father/daughter relationship between Hans and Liesel is one of my favorite parts of the book (and the movie).

Midnight Reading Lessons with Liesel and Hans
Midnight Reading Lessons with Liesel and Hans (Christopher Polk/Getty Images for DCP)

When World War II begins, life at the Hubermann’s becomes more challenging. Rudy and Liesel are required to attend Hitler Youth meetings. Food becomes more scarce. Rosa, who earns money doing washing for others, begins to lose clients. Liesel steals another book from a Nazi-sponsored book burning, and befriends the mayor’s wife, who lets her read from her library. The constant threat of bombing raids becomes a fact of life. And most importantly, the Hubermanns take in and hide Max, the son of a Jewish man who saved Hans’s life in WWI, who becomes a sort-of brother to Liesel.

While the story and characters of The Book Thief alone are wonderful (don’t worry, more book thievery happens), what makes the story unique is the narrator. The entire book is narrated by Death. Yes, Death. Death rather resignedly travels the world collecting the souls of the dying and trying not to pay attention to the reactions of those left behind. As the narrator, Death is very present in the story, inserting rather philosophical asides and comments. Also, Death does not believe in a no spoiler policy, and tells you bits (tragic bits) about how the story will end.
In my experience, Death as the narrator either works really well for readers, or comes off as gimmicky and disjointing for others. I personally love what Zusak did with the narration. If you’re curious about it, Death is also in the movie, and there is a short clip of him that can be found here (sorry, it won’t let me embed it for you):

Speaking of the movie, I got to attend an advance screening just over a week ago. They are slowly releasing the movie to more and more theaters, so keep an eye out for it over the next few weeks. I thought the movie was wonderful.

Geoffrey Rush plays Hans Hubermann alongside a new, young actress, Sophie Nelisse, who plays Liesel. Rush makes a perfect Hans–quiet, understanding, thoughtful, honest, with a touch of humor and playfulness, and his relationship with Liesel in the movie feels very real. Rudy, Max, and Rosa are all very well-acted as well. Rudy is absolutely adorable, and has the same energy he has in the book. Watching the friendship grow between Liesel and Max actually drew out the similarities in their stories in a way that I never pulled out from the books before. And it would have been especially easy to flatten Rosa’s character, but Emily Watson is wonderful. The movie is also visually rich and beautiful, as is the soundtrack (John Williams). 
It’s been awhile, but I’m still thinking about the movie. It’s a bit slow-moving and they’ve had to cut out a good bit of the book. However, The Book Thief really captures the spirit of the book, and the relationships between all the characters. Just like the book, the movie had me in tears. I did manage not to sob in the theater, though, which I feel is a great accomplishment.
I’d definitely read the book first, if you are able (I’m looking at you, Zelda). But if not, The Book Thief also makes a stunning movie.

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