I’ve always been bad at reading the popular, best-selling kind of book. In high school I read a lot of classics in school and would read additional ones not covered in class on my own, while in my free time, I preferred mysteries and sci-fi. I think there was actually some level of disdain for popular literature in many of the circles I ran in, either because they weren’t classics or the characters might do something “immoral”, or both. My grandma, however, was in a book club around this time so she was always familiar with the latest bestsellers in a way that I wasn’t. (So, you go, Grandma!)
So when my sister-in-law got me The Book Thief by Markus Zusak for Christmas, I had heard of it, but true to form, had never read it. I’ll admit that I found it a bit challenging to get into, not out of difficulty, but just because at first I got interested slowly and it took a while before I warmed to the characters and the unique narrative style. Once I did, though, I found it to be an engrossing read with an immersive world and distinct characters.
Liesel, the main character, is the one character I liked throughout the narrative. She’s clever, resourceful and determined to learn to read and it’s rewarding to see her efforts pay off. Although I didn’t like or particularly notice some of the other characters right away, I found that the further I read, the more I felt like I was a part of the community. Each character has their own idiosyncrasy or place in the town and that contributed to very life-like feeling world that grows over time.
The book also has some really good themes and positive messages which made it uplifting to read, even as I cried through the last couple chapters. I liked how the power of words and reading weaves throughout the story and how the relationships that Liesel’s reading fosters changes lives. I honestly had expected the story to be more of the typical WWII Germany story about war or resisting Hitler or something of that nature, but I think the subtlety of everyday integrity and resistance of injustice that Zusak captures is much more interesting.
Finally, I also thought the book was very well written, although the Death-as-narrator device bothered me at first. Even after I got used to it I kind of wished that Death wouldn’t skip ahead and give things away, but I think that also helps the reader come to grips with some things before they happen. I also appreciated how vivid the book was in its descriptions without being flowery or long-winded.
While it took some getting used to and adjustment of expectations, I thought The Book Thief was a really good book that I would definitely recommend. It’s a nuanced coming-of-age story, with interesting characters, an encouraging message, and a strong emotional undercurrent. Just maybe don’t read the last 1/4 of it in public if you don’t like anyone to see you cry.