The Book Thief door Markus Zusak

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Boekcover The Book Thief
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  • 27 april 2011
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De Boekendief
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Zilveren Zoen (2008 Winnaar)

Boekcover The Book Thief
The Book Thief door Markus Zusak

Title: The book thief
Subtitle: An incredible novel told by the darkest storyteller of them all.
Author: Markus Zusak
Pages: 584.
Illustrations: Trudy White
Publisher: Doubleday, Transworld Publishers

Cover art:
On the cover you see Death and Liesel Meminger dancing.

Explanation of the title:
The title is the ‘nickname’ the storyteller, Death, gives Liesel.

Time and place:
The story takes place in pre Nazi and Nazi Germany, so in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Novel, historical novel.

Writing style:
Zusak has a nice, flowing style of writing. It really matches with the form he uses in this book, with Death telling the story, giving pieces of explanation, translation and personal remarks during the story. He does not use many difficult words and he has a certain sense of humour which he entwines in the writing, which I personally think is brilliant.

The story is told by a third person that does not personally participate in the story, though he is always on the background. This storyteller, Death, knows al lot about different persons, but he is not capable of knowing the characters thoughts, he understands them because he saw the rest of their lives and because he read Liesels writings. Shortly said, Death is a ‘personale verteller’.

Themes and motives:
In the book there are several themes and motives, such as friendship, love, thievery, war, death, childhood, Nazism and the situation of Jews during the Second World War.

Main characters:

Liesel Meminger
Liesel is a young girl who loves books. She has a love/hate relationship with Rudy Steiner, steals books, fights boys in lower school and paints words on the basement wall to remember them.

Rudy Steiner

Rudy is Liesels friend and alley after she was the first one to stop one of his penalties ever. During the entire story he tries to get her into kissing him, but he’ll never succeed, until he dies, but that doesn’t really count anymore.

Max Vandenburg

Max is the son of Erik Vandenburg, a Jew who became friends with Hans Hubermann during WW I, he actually saved his life, for which Hans promises his widow that he’ll do anything for them if that would ever be necessary. Twenty years after that promise, Max goes into hiding at Himmelstreet 31, the Hubermann house.

Hans and Rosa Hubermann
Hans and Rosa are Liesels foster parents. Rosa usually screams and curses a lot, but is (deep inside) a really good person with a little golden hart. Hans is a calm and practical man, who really loves Liesel and even sells his loved cigarettes to get her books. Rosa does the washing and ironing for several households in the village to earn some money (their poor). At first she accompanies Liesel when bringing and picking up the washing, but soon she let her go alone.

Prologue: A mountain range of rubble
Death introduces himself and the story. He describes the first time he ‘meets’ the book thief when her little brother dies on the way to their foster parents, the Hubermanns.

Part one: The Gravedigger’s handbook
Death tells how Liesel steals her first book. One of the gravediggers at her brothers funeral drops his “Gravedigger’s handbook” in the snow, which Liesel takes. This will be her first book and help her learn to read. Later on, Death tells how Liesel arrives on Himmelstreet 33 in Molching and how the first months pass by. Because Liesel has nightmares every night, Hans goes up to her room and teaches Liesel how to read from The Gravedigger’s handbook. She still has a lot of difficulties at school because she is really slow with reading (maybe dyslectic?) but she does become friends with Rudy Steiner. From the very beginning of their friendship he tries to get her into kissing him, but he won’t live to actually see it happen. Meanwhile, war officially starts or, as Hans puts it: “the fun begins” (p.78).

Part two: The Shoulder Shrug
Hans trades a couple of cigarettes for books on the black market and gives them to Liesel for Christmas. Meanwhile, Liesel writes letters to her biological mother, but her foster parents behave strange when she is mentioned. It turns out that Liesels parents are communists and most probably deported. In 1940, Hitler’s birthday is celebrated with a gigantic feast. During this, books are burned and Liesel steals one of those books, but the mayor’s wife sees her.

Part three: Mein Kampf
The mayor’s wife asks Liesel to come inside when she delivers the washing and shows her the library. Liesel goes bananas, especially when she is told that she is allowed to actually read the books. Death introduces a nameless character, a young Jewish boy, hiding in a closet. Apparently there is a link between him and Hans Hubermann, but nothing is revealed yet. In Molching, Liesel and Rudy are so hungry that they start to join a group of guys who steal food from nearby farmers. Eventually they even go out stealing themselves when they cause an accident to a boy who delivers baskets full of food to the nearby Catholic Church. Then, in the late evening in November 1940, the nameless Jew arrives on Himmelstreet 31 after a nerve-racking journey and is introduced as 21-year-old Max Vandenburg.

Part four: The standover man
Hans Hubermann tells how he met Erik Vandenburg, Max’ dad, during WWI and how Erik saved his life by giving his own. Max tells about his life. It turns out he is born in 1916 and grew up in Stuttgart. He spends a lot of time on the streets and participates in fistfights. He later learns how to fight from his nephew, where he and his mother come to live after they got into financial trouble. Soon, Max moves to the basement because that will be safer, but it turns out that it’s so cold that he nearly freezes to death. After that, it is decided that he’ll spent his days hidden in the basement, but the nights in Rosa and Hans’ room (a.k.a. living room), next to the fireplace. Max and Liesel become friends and Max decides to make her a book. He cuts pages out of a copy of Mein Kampf, the one in which the map and keys to his safety (the Hubermanns) where hidden, and paints them white. After that, he paints the story on them. In the book, the pages are printed as Max drew them. He calls the story “The Standover Man”.

Part five: The Whistler
Max fantasises about a boxing match between him and Hitler. He does this nearly every day, but he loses most of the time. Liesel, who starts to bring newspapers with crossword puzzles for Max to solve, provides another distraction. This together with Max writing new stories for Liesel provides the family a certain sense of happiness. However, Rosas last washing customers fire her, so the families’ financial troubles get a lot worse. Meanwhile, Rudy has a tough time in the Hitler Youth because he stood up for a boy with a chronic inflammation of the ear. He and Liesel start stealing again and eventually even steal a book (The Whistler) from the mayor’s library. One day, Liesel discovers a new project Max is secretly working on. It’s a book with his opinions and views on Hitler and Nazi Germany. Liesel is really scared when she reads it but doesn’t say anything about it.

Part six: The Dream Carrier
During the winter of ’42 it’s so cold that Max gets ill. Over time, it gets so bad that Hans and Rose fear that they have to get a doctor or let him die, but eventually he gets well. During his illness, Liesel brings him little presents (thins she finds on the street) and reads The Whistler to him. After this scary period, another one arises when the Nazis decide to check all the basements in town to find safe hiding places for possible bomb attacks, after a rising number of them in the rest of Europe. Miraculously, Max is not discovered and the basement is disapproved as safe. So if an attack occurs they’ll have to go to another basement.

Part seven: The Complete Duden Dictionary and Thesaurus
Liesel steals her next book, The Dream Carrier from the mayor’s library. Later she also steals “The Complete Duden Dictionary and Thesaurus”, which the mayor’s wife obviously placed in such a way that Liesel would steal it, for the book contains a letter in which she excuses to Liesel about everything. Later, the sound of sirens is heard for the first time in Molching, and Liesel, Hans and Rosa leave Max behind as earlier discussed while they head to the approved basement of an other family. It turns out to be a fake round, so people return to their houses, but shortly afterwards the sirens are heard for a second time, this time for real. In the basement, Liesel starts to read The Whistler out loud, which calms the others. Later it is decided that Liesel will read out of the book for two times a week. Than a parade of Jews marches through Molching on their way to the nearby concentration camp. An old men falls and Hans offers him a crust of bread. One of the guards beats both him and the man up for doing that. Shortly afterwards Max leaves, and Hans is scared that the Nazis will come and get him for being friendly to Jews, but when the Nazis come, it is for Rudy.

Part eight: The Word Shaker
Rudy is selected to join one of the military trainings for Hitler’s army, but his parents won’t let him go. As a payment for that, both Hans Hubermann and Alex Steiner (Rudy’s dad) receive a call to join. They go into bombed territory to do dangerous work, while their families are scared and lonely, for Liesel did not only ‘lose’ her father, but also Max. At Christmas she and Rudy break into his fathers clothing shop where Rudy puts on a suit and Liesel laughs at him for doing so.

Part nine: The last human stranger
Liesel steals her next book from the mayor’s library while in January 1943 one of the sons of Frau Holzapfel, one of the women of the village, returns with the news that his brother, Robert, died. At night, Liesel sees Rosa hold Hans’ accordion while praying for a safe return. Her prayers are answered when Hans gets an accident and is sent home. Rudy gets mad because Hans returns, but his own father doesn’t, and he makes an attempt to look for him, but fails. Near the end of April, Hans returns.

Part ten: The Book Thief
Michale Holzapfel commits suicide in July 1943 because he feels guilty that he is alive and his brother is not. Another group of Jews comes marching through the village and Liesel goes to see it and check if Max is part of the group. Until now, that never happened, but this time she sees him. She tries to get to him and walk along, but gets dragged out and beaten up by the guards. She tells Rudy everything about Max and also that she is in love with Max. Later, she receives a little black, empty notebook from the mayor’s wife and starts to write down her story. In the middle of the night, she starts to write in the basement while the rest of Molching sleeps. This saves her life because, while she is writing, the entire village is bombed while everyone is asleep until there is no one left but her. When she leaves the basement she sees the ones she knew and loved lying dead and mutilated around her. She realises she lost everyone and starts to scream Max’ name over and over again, kisses Rudy, gives Hans his accordion and tries to say goodbye to everyone. Eventually Nazis take her away but she loses the notebook in which she wrote her story. That notebook is secretly picked up by Death, and he’ll read it numerous times.

Epilogue: The last colour
Death tells that years has passed since that day and that Liesel Meminger had died a very old age, in a suburb of Sydney. He also tells that Liesel was adopted by the mayor and his wife, how Alex Steiner returns and opens his store again, where Liesel starts working. In October 1945, a man with swampy eyes, feathers of hair and a clean-shaven face walked into the shop, turning out to be Max Vandenburg. As Death takes Liesels soul, he brings her back to the streets of Molching where she used to play football as a kid. He gives her the little notebook he always brings with him. As they sit down for a moment, Liesel asks Death if he understood what she’d written. Death answers the only thing he feels is the answer; that he “is hunted by humans”.

About the author
Markus Zusak (1975, Sydney) is an Australian author of five books, The Book Thief, The Messenger, When Dogs Cry, Fighting Ruben and The Underdog, most of them awarded with various prices. Markus is mother German and his father is Austrian. The Book Thief is based on stories of their lives during WWII, but especially on his mothers’ memories, for she lived in a little town next two a concentration camp (just as Molching in the story). One day Markus mother saw how a group of Jews was directed through her village, and one old man fell, completely exhausted, while a young boy went inside his house to get him some bread, and after he gave it to the old man, they both got beaten up by guards for it.

My opinion
I absolutely adored this book for it’s understandable language, the fluentness of the story and the certain sense of humour Zusak entwined in this sad story. Somehow he manages to really drag you in to the story, to make you feel what his characters feel and to really draw some of the most powerful characters I’ve seen in a long time. So, even though it’s quite a big book, I’d say you should at least give it a try. It’s al beautiful story and, in my opinion, a masterpiece.


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