The 584 pages of this extraordinary novel are centred on the lives of families and individuals in a town in Nazi Germany. Liesel, nine at the beginning of The Book Thief , is parted from her family in the chaos of Hitler’s rise to power; little explanation is given although it seems her parents were communists. Fostered by Rosa and Hans Hubermann, she grows to early teenage in a tough but loving environment. Hard times are exacerbated by Hans’s reluctance to join the Nazi party or to persecute the Jews in his town. Formerly a soldier in World War One, his life was saved by another soldier, Erik Vandenburg, a Jew, so when his son Max turns up on Hans’s doorstep Hans feels obliged to hide him, despite the huge risks involved. Hans is one of the great characters in the book: humane and patient, he teaches Liesel to read the books which she loves and which acquired by stealth, she builds into an eclectic library.
The narrator is Death who does not choose those whose souls he takes; it is his job to gather them after their owners have died. He is appalled by the way in which humans often behave, and especially the horrendous ways in which victims of Hitler’s fanaticism meet their appointments with him. It’s a clever device, allowing for dispassionate observation of events and for a different commentary on matters which can lose their impact by becoming over familiar. It also provides opportunities for Death to drop oblique remarks, leaving the reader fearful for sympathetic characters.
This is not a ‘them and us’ war novel. Most of the characters know little about those with whom Germany is at war, and show little allegiance to Hitler. Most of all, it is about survival; the survival of people in the first instance, but it is also a reflection on the survival of books despite efforts to eradicate them, and of words too in the face of a political system which makes everyone afraid of saying too much. Within this powerful novel, the power of story is manifest when, for example, Liesel distracts her neighbours as they shelter from bombings, and where Max finds distraction from his basement hideout by creating stories.
The Book Thief has much to say to thoughtful readers, young and old.