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The Book Thief

I think this is the first time in my life that I’ve gone to see a movie in theaters and then decided to go read the book afterwards. I’m always the one who insists on reading the book first. But I was asked last minute by a friend, so I decided to go to the movie, knowing nothing of what was coming. And then I knew I had to read it.

It was the narration that did it. Throughout the movie, although I loved the story, what really caught my attention was the narrator: Death. You see, having Death as a narrator sets up situations for rather morbid humor – like the time he says, “It’s probably fair to say that in all the years of Hitler’s reign, no person was able to serve the Führer as loyally as me.”

So, I read it. And I loved it.

A cast of characters:

Liesel Meminger, protagonist: We meet Liesel as her mother is taking her and her brother to a foster family. Liesel’s father was a communist and has been taken away. Liesel has nightmares, loves playing soccer, refuses to give in to Rudy’s repeated requests for a kiss, and loves words in the way most children love candy. She is the book thief herself.

Rudy Steiner, Liesel’s best friend: Rudy is a great runner and wants nothing more than to be Jesse Owens – so much so that he paints himself black (this is known around town as “the Jesse Owens incident”). He has lemon-colored hair and wants a kiss from Liesel since the day she arrives. (He’s probably my favorite character in the movie.)
A comment from Death on Rudy: “In years to come, he would be a giver of bread, not a stealer. Proof again of the contradictory human being: so much good, so much evil. Just add water.”

Rosa Hubermann (Mama): Liesel’s foster mama, described as having a “cardboard face” and a “wardrobe body.” She snores “with enthusiasm.” Rosa is extremely rough around the edges, but we see clearly how big of a heart she has.

Hans Hubermann (Papa): Probably my favorite character in the book. Hans is tall and has eyes “made of kindness and silver” (a description that reminds me of my grandfather – he’s one of those wonderful people who smiles with his eyes as well as his mouth). A few quotes about Hans:

  • About him comforting Liesel every night from her nightmares: “Trust was accumulated quickly, due primarily to the brute strength of the man’s gentleness – his “there”ness. The girl knew from the outset that Hans Hubermann would always appear mid-scream, and he would not leave. A definition not found in the dictionary: Not-leaving: an act of trust and love, often deciphered by children.”
  • Death’s account of meeting Papa: “I could see the silver through his eyelids. His soul sat up; it met me. Those kinds of souls always do – the best ones. The ones who rise up and say, ‘I know who you are, and I am ready. Not that I want to go, of course, but I will come.’ Those souls are always light because more of them have been put out. More of them have already found their way to other places. This one was sent out by the breath of an accordion, the odd taste of champagne in summer, and the art of promise-keeping.”

Max Vandenburg: The Jew the Hubermanns hide in their basement. One of the things I love about Max is that he imagines, in great detail, boxing matches between himself and Hitler. He makes Liesel presents and berates himself for the selfishness of putting the Hubermanns in danger to save his life.

Frau Hermann: The mayor’s wife who leaves the library window open, allowing Liesel to steal any books she wants. The book gives life to the complicated nature of Liesel’s relationship with her.

Other things to love:
That Death becomes a sympathetic character. At first, we get comments that sound cold and unfeeling (which is what we would expect), such as “…I went about my business. I traveled the globe, as always, handing souls to the conveyor belt of eternity.”
But as the book goes on, we see more: “…there is Death, making his way through all of it. On the surface, unflappable, unwavering. Below, unnerved, untied, and undone. In all honesty – and I know I’m complaining excessively now – I was still getting over Stalin in Russia. …Then came Hitler. They say that war is Death’s best friend. But I must offer you a different point of view on that one. To me, war is like the new boss who expects the impossible. He stands over your shoulder, repeating one thing incessantly: Get it done. Get it done. So you work harder. You get the job done. The boss, however, does not thank you. He asks for more.”

The summer Liesel spends painting with Papa: “If only she could be so oblivious again, to feel such love without knowing it – mistaking it for laughter… It was the best time of her life.”

The imagery in the descriptions, like this one of a Jew on his march to Dachau: “His eyes were the color of agony.”

The scene where two soldiers come to the Steiner’s house to “ask” for Rudy to be sent to a training camp because of his athleticism. While the adults are talking in the kitchen, Rudy and his sisters are arranging dominoes in the living room: “[Rudy] made three separate formations that led to the same tower of dominoes in the middle. Together, they would watch everything that was so carefully planned collapse. And they would all smile at the beauty of destruction.”
When Rudy’s parents refuse to send him, the army punishes the Steiners by drafting his father instead.

Final comments:
I thought the movie did a really good job with the book – I mean, it’s hard to narrow down 550 pages into less than 2 hours of movie. I think the movie showed Hans’ gentle kindness really well, although it cut out some beautiful scenes between him and Liesel. One thing I thought the movie really didn’t do justice to was Liesel’s relationship with Frau Hermann; it’s so much more nuanced than the movie showed.

This is easily one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. It’s saturated with imagery. The way Zusak puts words together is stunning. Read it!