Perhaps one of the best books of all time (in the realm of this blog and the greater world as well) is Markus Zusak’s masterpiece, The Book Thief. It tells the particular story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl in WWII Germany, who is separated from her mother and sent to live with the Hubermann family on Himmel Street. There, she meets a whole streetful of characters; from her kind but brash foster parents, to the mayor’s wife, to her best friend Rudy Steiner, and finally Max Vanderberg, a young Jewish man hiding from the Gestapo in the Hubermann’s basement.
The story itself is narrated by the figure of Death, who periodically interrupts the microcosm of the stories of Himmel Street, to provide an update on what is going on everywhere else in the world. This dual viewpoint is both effective to place the story in the greater scheme of things, and just as perspective on the events of the War. Death also ensures that you know the fates of the characters before you meet them, which makes it all the more tragic when you grow to love them despite (or perhaps because of) the knowledge of their ultimate end.
Zusak’s prose is both crystalline and blunt. Take this quote for example: “I witness the ones that are left behind, crumbled among the jigsaw puzzles of realization, despair, and surprise. They have punctured hearts. They have beaten lungs.” If that doesn’t cut right to the core of things, well, I don’t know what does. The author is a storytelling genius – when it got to the end of novel, I went into the bathroom and cried out of both sadness and peace. It was breathtaking.
Furthermore, Liesel is one of the most interesting protagonists that exist today. She is both bright and opinionated, but is still able to understand the complexity of Max’s feelings as he hides in her basement. She has a great capacity for love, even in the heat of the War, when tragedy and fear is all around – this is the core of the story. For someone who has lost so much, she is able to not just survive, but survive with a pure soul, that transforms everyone around her. She is both relatable and inspiring, and provides a fair and honest assessment of Germany at the time. Definitely a good companion to The Diary of Anne Frank.
This is a great book for middle to upper grade readers – it has won numerous prizes, and spent more than 100 weeks at the top of the NY Times Book Review Bestseller List. I cannot say enough about it, except that you mustmustmust read it. Zusack’s other book for upper grade readers, I Am The Messenger, is also worth a read.
PS. Check this piece from the NY Times Sunday Book Review this week: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/books/review/Paul-t.html?_r=1&ref=review