The beginning of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is one of heartbreak and despair. It’s January 1939 and we’re on a train that’s on its way to Munich. We’re traveling with a 9-year-old girl, her mother, and her younger brother. All of them are cold, sick, and hungry. The mother is bringing her children to a foster family in Munich in the hope it will give them a chance at a better life.
Unfortunately, the boy never makes it. He dies on the train.
The family is taken off the train at the next town by two guards. Two days later, the boy is buried there. It’s where the book thief steals her first book. It’s her most prized possession, even if she can’t read. Even if the book is a grave digger’s handbook.
After the funeral, the girl and her mother continue on the journey to Munich, where Liesel Meminger meets Rosa and Hans Hubermann, her foster parents.
The narrator of the book is Death. I don’t mean that the narrator died. The narrator is Death itself. Death was never far away in those years, so it’s quite convenient to have him narrate the book. He was there anyway. His unusual point of view gives the book and the story something special.
After the painful start, you expect the entire book to be full of heartbreak. That’s not the case. A significant part of the book is about learning to read, being a family, making friends, accordions, helping those who need help and making more friends.
I did read most of it with my teeth clenched, expecting the world to end any moment now. It meant that I had to pace myself through the book.
The book is beautifully written. But in the end, the world does end. Most of it anyway. The second to last chapter made me cry the most. It also felt awfully short. I wanted to read much more about it.
I wish I had known Liesel and Hans Hubermann and Max. They were able to create joy and beauty under terrible circumstances. They defied the harshness of the world around them and continued to be kind, to love music and reading and life. And they shared these gifts with others where and when they could. They gave hope in a hopeless time.