The Book Thief: Death Brings Life to a Poignant Story

Writer Inaya Yusuf reviews The Book Thief, a historical fiction novel that follows the life of Liesel Meminger as she grows up in Nazi Germany during World War II.

The first edition cover of The Book Thief, designed by Colin Anderson.


The first edition cover of The Book Thief, designed by Colin Anderson.

Inaya Yusuf

What is it like to see the world through the eyes of death? Is it to notice every color of the sky, to be burdened by soul-crushing guilt from stealing human souls, to wonder how a certain young girl, Liesel Meminger, repeatedly evades your grasp? 

Inspired by the experiences of his own parents, Markus Zusak is nothing if not thorough, introspective, and unapologetically, brutally honest in not only telling the truths of the tragedies in World War II living under the Nazi regime, but enabling his readers to recognize them as more than just a statistic or a fact found in a history textbook. Perhaps that is why rather than allowing Liesel, as planned originally, to share her perspective of her small world, Zusak chooses to let Death itself narrate the events of World War II as experienced on the fictional Himmel Street.

Death first introduces himself and then goes on to describe his first encounter with Liesel Meminger, during which her brother Werner dies and Death takes his soul. At her brother’s burial, Liesel steals The Grave Digger’s Handbook, thus beginning her journey as a book thief. Shortly after, she is sent to be raised by foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, whom slowly grow dear to her. While adjusting to her new life on Himmel Street, Liesel befriends her young and athletic neighbor, Rudy Steiner (Zusak’s favorite character), is taught how to read by Hans Hubermann, her adoptive father and a World War I veteran, and begins delivering laundry for her adoptive mother, Rosa Hubermann. 

Political tensions rise and Liesel, now accompanied by Rudy, continues to steal books everywhere from a Nazi book-burning to the mayor’s wife’s library. Once Max Vandenburg arrives at their door in their small town of Molching, the Hubermanns make the choice to hide the German Jew, whose father served alongside Hans, in their basement. As Max and Liesel bond over the solace they find in writing and story-telling while working to recover from their ordeals, the war intensifies, leaving Liesel to cope with the Hubermanns’ worsening poverty, the incomprehensible crimes of the Nazi soldiers, and eventually, close calls with Death itself. 

A scene from the stage adaptation of The Book Thief, written and directed by Heidi Stillman. (Seth Arkin)

While the Michael-L.-Printz-Award-winning novel comprises of over 500 pages, the pacing is set perfectly in a way that allows the elements of the plot to slowly rise into a gut-wrenching crescendo. Zusak described The Book Thief as “90 percent fiction” in an interview with Heidi Stillman, the writer and director of the book’s stage adaptation. Despite this claim, his extensive research into the history and experiences of those living in the Nazi regime during the time period bring the setting of the fictional town of Molching, on the outskirts of Munich just as Zusak’s mother’s hometown was, as well as the ironically named Himmel Street (Himmel translating to “Heaven”), to life.  

The incredibly eloquent and expressive language used in the novel similarly contribute to both its characters’ joy, with Liesel taking comfort in the simplicity of rolling a cigarette for her father or listening to him play his accordion, and its devastating misfortunes, as Death strolls past the carnage left by bombs. In the world of The Book Thief, Death distracts itself from its task of collecting souls by noticing the various hues of the sky, words grows from trees and are harnessed by “word shakers”, pages of books are gems to be discovered, and for a moment, Rudy Steiner can pretend to win a race as Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens.

While the setting and language of the novel grant the reader vivid imagery of life on Himmel Street, whether it be sitting in the cold basement with Max, listening to Hans read out tips on proper burial practices, or snatching apples from the neighbors’ orchard with Rudy, the characters are what truly make The Book Thief an unforgettable tale that will leave you questioning “why?” long after you’ve turned the last page. 

A poster for the 2013 film adaptation of the movie, directed by Brian Percival; in order to conform as a “family-friendly movie,” it omits a few aspects from the book that takes away from the originally dark atmosphere. (IMDb)

Liesel is a capable and resilient female lead with wit, vulnerability, and an unwavering desire for justice. Hans Hubermann acts as a doting father who demonstrates generosity and patience with Liesel and actively combats Hitler’s regime in multiple ways. Despite his survivor’s guilt, Max’s fighting spirit and vivid imagination remain his most defining qualities. Rudy is characterized by his steadfast loyalty, kindness, and playful personality. 

While they, along with the other characters, all work to overcome their struggles and support each other in inconceivably harrowing times, Liesel’s character develops the most as she learns how to use the power of words, empathize with the struggles of others, and channel her emotions into standing for what is morally right. She builds complex relationships with the other characters cemented by their willingness to defend each other and mutual understanding of the unfairness their lives are defined by. Zusak manages to make the characters almost walk off the page through their dialogue and small interactions, with the heartfelt book Max writes for Liesel being the prime example of this. Every laugh, every smile, every tear of joy or pain, everything about the characters gives them a quality that makes them so genuinely human

Which is likely why the ending is so agonizing to read. Even while avoiding specifying, it isn’t difficult to predict how such a story would conclude. From the moment the reader perceives that the setting is Nazi Germany, World War II, and from the instant that Death introduces itself as the narrator on the very first page, tragedy is already expected. But The Book Thief isn’t a story about death. It isn’t just a story about misery and loss, or sorrow and injustice. It is about life, recovering from loss, and fighting for the truth until your last breath. This makes it a must-read for everyone, although it certainly isn’t an easy one. As Zusak put it in an interview with BookPage: “It’s the little stories that define us, our existence. And Death is trying to find stories that indicate we’re worth it. We are our stories.”