The cover of Markus Zusak’s novel The Book Thief depicts a finger pushing down the first in a long, snaking row of dominoes. It’s a fitting image for the book, set in Nazi Germany, about the causality of events and how they can set moments of both tragedy and pathos into motion.
The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl whose brother is killed and mother is taken away by the Nazis, who despite being illiterate steals books and becomes obsessed with the written word. She eventually learns to read from her foster father, Hans, and her growing knowledge of words corresponds with her growing knowledge of what’s happening to her country under Hitler’s rule. Liesel is subtly aware of the factors of fate that play a huge role in her life: the fact that she is alive while her brother is not, and that her foster father survived World War I only to have that survival come with a price tag: decades later, his family must hide in their basement a young man named Max, the Jewish son of one of Hans's fallen comrades.
The Book Thief deploys one of the more interesting conceits of recent literature: it employs Death itself to act as the narrator. It’s an apt enough approach, considering that the story is set in early years of World War II when Hitler’s death machine was at the peak of its power. Zusak has gone to great pains to make Death's voice both human and, oddly enough, humane. By revealing the events of Nazi Germany through the prism of Death as a character, Zusak is able to show us the very human cost of this grand historical catastrophe.
What I find most interesting about Zusak’s book, though, is that it’s labeled and marketed as a young adult novel. This is curious considering its length, gruesome subject matter and, most strangely, the fragmented approach that Zusak uses in telling his story. The Book Thief is not a straight-up narrative: several of the key events in the book happen out of sequence. I suspect this is a departure from most YA literature, and I applaud Zusak for taking the risk. Still, I often felt like some of the best or most climatic moments in the book are deflated by this tactic, since we often know what’s going to happen in a pivotal scene because Death as already told us in a previous chapter.
Despite this questionable approach, there’s no denying the raw power and heart-wrenching emotion on display in The Book Thief. Zusak does not shy away from the immensity of the Holocaust, nor does his book roam into some untenable allegory. He sticks with his overarching conceit and uses it to tell a raw and engaging story. I hope lots of kids discover this book. It is traditional storytelling at its best.