“Two wars for two escapes.
Once young, once middle-aged.
Not many men are lucky enough to cheat me twice.”
Liesel Meminger has been getting the same nightmare since the incidents leading to her move to her foster family. In the midst of 1939 Germany, the air is thick with fear, raids, and of course, death. Narrated by Death itself, the novel tells the story of Liesel and her instances of thievery, survival, and growing-up years as a German in the poorer streets of Nazi Germany.
Liesel Meminger, the Book Thief
The main person Death was obsessed with. As you read the story, you’ll come to understand why.
While she appears to be stubborn, naive, and directionless, experiencing possible teenage angst that can only be satiated by stealing books, not many will be able to see the determination and faith in this character. Despite being constantly put down in school, she spares no effort in learning in her own time (with Hans’s help) and learns the importance of knowledge. Also sharing her readings to calm the people during air raids, and even to entertain Frau Holtzapfel, a long time object of disdain to the Hubermanns.
She is also sentimental, valuing her relationships greatly – memory of her deceased brother, solid familial love for her foster parents (even after the Himmel Street bombing), undying love and friendship to Rudy Steiner, and love and kindness to Max, although she may lose her life or family if he was found. One could also say that she possessed a great amount of faith most people might have dismissed in such dark times, always believing her father and Max to return.
Together with Hans, she is probably the personification of humanity in an inhumane time, showing how the people deemed “safe” in a time of war were suffering and were opposing what they should be fighting for (national glory) at that point in time.
Hans Hubermann, the Reluctant Nazi
When I say “reluctant”, it’s an understatement.
In the book itself, there was a mention that a small percentage of Germans were not swayed by Hitler’s words – Hans Hubermann, Liesel’s foster father, was one of them. Like Liesel, he is portrayed to be the embodiment of the sliver of humanity many hoped Nazi Germany would have. Despite applying for the Nazi Party (under the constant insistence by his staunch Nazi son), he never wanted anything to do with the war.
Instead, his character was one of a silent rebel – one who understood his privilege and used it to defy the system (getting Mein Kampf to protect a Jew, feeding bread to Jews in their march, offering paint jobs to fellow villagers for close to nothing), opposing through actions instead of words.
War & Death…
A pretty obvious theme, considering it’s Nazi Germany in WWII.
Narrated by Death itself, the novel is different in a way that Death tends to provide a sliver of the ending before continuing with the rest of the story at the start of each section. This signifies that every person will die, it’s only a matter of when, and death makes no discrimination on who to take.
The tone Death takes is mostly deadpan but also slightly annoyed: Death does not enjoy war any more than humanity.
In addition, its finishing note in the book sums up the truth about Death itself rather well – while humanity may see death as something beyond their control, the truth of the matter is that death is still busy because of the nature of humanity – people die. And that means Death still has to work.
War & Humanity…
History, or history as we are taught, tends to paint things with an obscenely broad brush. The Book Thief gave the Germans in WWII a human face. In Liesel’s recounts, what worried her the most was the loss of her family and friends, not the “abomination” that was the Jews. At the same time, the good, the bad, and the ugly are surfaced, just as humanity is (Hans’s kindness regardless of race, Frau Diller’s staunch Aryanism, Hitler Youth Leader Deutshcer’s abusive ways).
In short, war affected the people in the nations that have started the wars as much as those in conquered territory.
Style & Structure
Despite the first person narration, this novel gave a different kind of story – one of another instead of him/herself. As such, you get a somewhat objective 3rd person view without feeling too distant about the story. Little snippets are inserted into a narration that seems to be intended to be deadpan, giving extra facts in capsule form without distracting from the story, it’s as if these were footnotes in Death’s diary (not absolutely necessary, but if you knew, you’ll appreciate its story better). The pages of handwriting and sketches also brought about a personal touch, as if Death was hanging over their shoulders (as it does in reality).
What was really different about the book, however, was how the story was told about a German in WWII Germany, a “safe” person, a different perspective, and how the truths of the matters were not as simple as we would like to believe.
In the meantime…