Summary: Narrated by Death, The Book Thief traces the life of Liesel, a young girl in Nazi Germany. Liesel is raised by foster parents, and through the dedication of her "papa," she grows to love--and steal--books. Her family's life becomes more complicated when they hide Max, a Jew, in their basement and a deep friendship forms.
Musings: The Book Thief is narrated by Death, so its tone and structure is, from the beginning, slightly unusual. For Zusak, Death is a tired and pessimistic being who has nonetheless been touched by Liesel's story. Death says he has no interest in keeping secrets, so many of the important plot points (namely the deaths of almost all the characters and Liesel's varied "book stealings") are mentioned and foreshadowed repeatedly throughout the book. Although I could see the need of creating tension, I grew tired of the ominous "certainly, something of great magnitude was coming toward 33 Himmel Street" statements that were peppered on nearly every page until I just wished Zusak would get on with it and spit out the full story (129). In particular, Death spends an inordinate amount of time in the beginning of the book alluding to Liesel's thievery, even though very few of her acquired books are real "thefts" and none of the thefts come with much adventure or conflict.
Liesel is an enjoyable character because she is so flawed. When she first arrives at her foster parents' house, she is uncommunicative with little ability to read. The love of her papa helps her grow but does not dissipate her nightmares. Liesel acts both heroically and selfishly, and she has to live with some important regrets. Oddly, Liesel's past is almost completely missing from the book. The book begins with Liesel's mother taking her to live with the foster family; along the way, her brother dies. Although Liesel's nightmares are caused by losing her brother, Liesel does not seem to ever think about her mother. We learn almost nothing about Liesel's biological family other than they were labeled communists. After an early attempt, Liesel makes no other effort to get in touch with her mother or find her mother.
Because the book takes place in Nazi Germany, it's clear from the beginning that a happy ending is not possible. Much of the book dwells on the deaths of the main characters, and despite being repeatedly warned about the deaths, I was still immensely sad when they actually happened. I wished more time had been spent on Liesel's and Max's lives after Hitler's fall, but the book ends rather quickly after the primary deaths, despite the five-hundred pages Zusak took to get there.
Zusak has created different spin on the young adult "Holocaust" novel, and his characterization keeps the reader hooked.