The Book Thief: A Review

Where do I even begin? Thematically, The Book Thief is so layered that I need to spend some time to unravel them.
In a lot of ways, it is a typical Holocaust story. Set in a small, made-up town of Molching near Munich, we see the transformation of the residents of Himmel St. as the country is swept into the Nazi ideology. The Book Thief is young Liesel Meminger. She enters the world of Himmel St. via her adoptive parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. As Liesel struggles to adjust to her new family set by a harrowing trip to Molching (she loses her brother on the way while her Mother left and disappeared forever), we also see this tiny town struggle to make life in Germany seem normal amidst the onset of war.
Because of a promise made, the Hubermanns find themselves harboring a German Jew in their basement, a sin equivalent to death – if found out – in Nazi Germany.
But in a lot of ways too, The Book Thief is not your typical Holocaust story. For one, it is set not in occupied Poland nor Austria, but in Bavaria where Nazism was born, featuring Hitler’s most prized Aryans – blonde, blue-eyed Germans. Rather than painting the characters in black and white – the bad Germans vs the persecuted minority – it explores the dichotomy of human nature. How can average men – shop owners, teachers, tailors – actively participate in the persecution and killing of a fellow, or even worse, stand back and let it all happen?
While hiding out at the basement during one of the air raids, Death addresses this complicated dichotomy. “Did they deserve any better, these people? How many had actively persecuted others, high on the scent of Hitler’s gaze, repeating his sentences, his paragraphs, his opus? Was Rosa Hubermann responsible? The hider of a Jew? Or Hans? Did they all deserve to die? The children?
…I pitied them, though not as much as I felt for the ones I scooped up from the various camps in that time. The Germans in basements were pitiable, surely, but at least they had a chance. That basement was not a washroom. They were not sent there for a shower. For those people, life was still achievable.”
And yeah, another unique factor – Death narrates!*
But the theme that resonated with me the most is the redemptive power of books and words. While the rise of Nazism in Germany demonstrated that words can destroy and hate, words can also heal, save and give hope.

* On a side note, Jeffrey Eugenides employs a similar literary trick in Middlesex by making his narrator, Calliope/Cal, all-seeing and all-knowing.

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