Based on its title, you might think that The Book Thief is a spy thriller or a Holmes-style detective story. But really, this is the emotional story of a young girl living in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. Yep, a ten-year-old girl is the title's thief.
The Book Thief was first published in Australia in 2005 and in the US in 2006. It's Australian author Markus Zusak's fifth novel, and it emerged on the scene when Zusak was only thirty years old. Winning a slew of awards, mostly in the Young Adult category, and selling at least a million copies, The Book Thief is monumentally increasing this young author's fame (source).
Liesel Meminger, a young German girl growing up in Nazi Germany, is the star of the show. She's also the chief book thief in the novel, which is narrated by Death. When Liesel's foster parents decide to give refuge to a young Jewish man hiding from the Nazi regime, the characters grow and change in horrible and beautiful ways.
Zusak took over three years to complete the piece and even went to Munich, Germany to research some of the finer points. He tackles all sorts of dicey issues concerning one of the most difficult topics ever – the Holocaust. This is the name for the large scale persecution and murder of some six million Jews along with other people considered "undesirable" by the Nazis.
Zusak's parents grew up in Germany during World War II and shared their stories of these times with Zusak. According to a review in the Guardian:
Zusak […] has said that writing the book was inspired by two real-life events related to him by his German parents: the bombing of Munich, and a teenage boy offering bread to an emaciated Jew being marched through the streets, ending with both boy and Jewish prisoner being whipped by a soldier. (source)
You'll see definite echoes of the whipping incident in several crucial points in the novel, and you can read more details about the story Zusak heard here. In interviews, Zusak discusses an additional inspiration for the novel – tales of a real book thief in Zusak's hometown of Sydney, Australia (source).
At times hilarious (believe it or not), at times heartbreaking, The Book Thief is rich and creative. It's a heartfelt reminder of the power of words – they can destroy or heal, depending on how we use them.
Powerful emotion? Check.
Major suspense? Check.
Dynamic characters? Check.
History lesson? Check.
Now that we're sure that The Book Thief gives us everything necessary for a generally cool story, let's move on to what's care-worthy about this particular novel. Oh, but first, we forgot one:
Narrated by Death? Check.
Take a look at our "Why Should I Care?" on The Diary of Anne Frank for all the heavy stuff involved in reading a book about a young person living through the Holocaust. Keep these reasons-to-care in the front of your mind while you're reading, because they are at the heart of The Book Thief.
But we here at Shmoop want to take a second to talk about something unique to The Book Thief that's so important, it made it into the title: yep, books. We know you love them, or you wouldn't be here reading what we have to say about a book that's about a book about books. But reading isn't just a matter of loving books; we have to be sure not to take them for granted. The Book Thief reminds us of just that.
Liesel didn't have the luxury of going to her local library and picking out whatever bestseller had hit the shelves that week. She had to steal books – and even save them from malicious fires – in order to read. Even today, when a lot of us can browse through entire libraries with the click of a button, there are still people who don't have access: maybe they can't afford books, or maybe they never even learned to read.
Markus Zusak's choice to portray the excitement and influence of books in the context of the Holocaust highlights just how powerful they are. As we discuss in our "Symbols" section, when the Nazis burned books, they were in essence burning the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people. Each of the books that Liesel steals represents a glimmer of hope – for her, for the Jewish community, and for the post-Holocaust world.