Books Classics fiction Historical War Young Adult

The heart of humanity in “The Book Thief”

How do you write a fresh story about the Holocaust? Australian novelist Markus Zusak has cracked it with The Book Thief, which has become a number one international bestseller. Although this book is classed as young adult fiction, I strongly suspect it was written for adults when it was originally published in Zusak’s native Australia. Some readers could argue that a book so difficult and sad may not be appropriate for teenage readers and many teenagers may find the story too slow to get going (which is a fair criticism), but I think it’s a great young adult novel that adults can enjoy, too.

It’s the kind of story that can be life-changing, because without ever denying the essential amorality and the randomness of the natural order, The Book Thief offers us a believable, hard-won hope. That hope is embodied in Leisel, who, despite the suffering all around her and everything she goes through, grows into a generous and good person and becomes a human that even Death can love.

The hope we see in Liesel is unassailable, the kind you can hang on to in the midst of poverty and war and violence. Young readers need such alternatives to ideological rigidity, and such explorations of how stories matter. And so, come to think of it, do adults.

It’s just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. . . .

Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak’s groundbreaking new novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau.

This is an unforgettable story about the ability of books to feed the soul.


Zusak gives us everything you would expect in a novel about wartime Nazi Germany: hungry children pinching food, book burning, bombing attacks and suffering Jews. But his unique trick is to make Death his narrator. Death is wry, tender and overworked. He complains that war is like having a new boos who expects the impossible, who constantly nags at him to “Get it done, get it done.”

But the elating thing about this, is that Death has a heart. By having Death commenting on the action and offering pithy asides, this Holocaust story becomes everyone’s story. This isn’t just about them. It’s about us. And in case we don’t get it, Death reminds us in the novels very first paragraph:

You are going to die.”
— Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

The Book Thief is full of strong themes that you could expect from a novel like this: love, literature and writing, war, morality, identity, criminality, suffering, courage… the list goes on. But what I really enjoyed, and what I thought made this story a different and fresh Holocaust story, was the books deeper message.

I think the last sentence of the novel basically sums up the entire meaning of the book.

I am haunted by humans.”
— Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

Humans are capable of so much evil, and the things we do to one another can be horrifying. At the same time, there are some humans who are incredible and who can just love and love and love no matter what. They take enormous risks where they have a lot to lose and nothing to gain.

There is more than just good vs bad shown throughout the book; it also explores the imperfections in the “heroes” and creates sympathy for the “villains”. Death is haunted by what humans do, by the good and the bad and all the ways the two overlap and blur together.

Humanity is complex and layered. It is not entirely understood, not even by humans themselves, but the will to keep going, learning and growing stays strong. the complexity of humanity astounds and confuses Death. The complexity of humanity astounds and confuses Death – it respects and is appalled by what it has seen humans do and the contradiction that is humanity haunts Death. In the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Death is “both within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

In the words of Death himself:

“I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race — that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words damning and brilliant.”
— Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

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