Set during WWII in Germany, The Book Thief starts by following Liesel Meminger traveling with her mother and brother traveling by train to Munich. Her mother is a communist and has found a foster home for them to protection as political tensions rise under the Nazis. Along the way her brother dies, and Liesel crosses paths for the ﬁrst time with the novel’s narrator, Death. At her brother’s funeral, she also steals her ﬁrst book: a manual on grave digging, which she is unable to read. The use of Death as a near-omniscient narrator has the potential to come oﬀ as contrived, but this empathetic version of Death sets a softened tone for the various horrors to come. And since Death can’t help but foreshadow and even let slip some details ahead of time, the narrative pulls forward expectantly.
Though Liesel’s transition into her life with her foster parents is understandably challenging at ﬁrst, she develops a close relationship with the father Hans Hubermann, who sits with her when she wakes from nightmares of her brother’s death and teaches her to read by slowly plodding through the grave digging manual. Even her abrasive, constantly cussing foster mother becomes a reassuring presence. With the addition of her friendship with their neighbor Rudy Steiner, who takes part in the later continuation of her book thieving, and a visitor who comes to stay with them, she ﬁnds a new family and a comfortable happiness in the midst of the war. Yet it will inevitably be endangered by the realities of the world around them.
While this novel was published for young adults in the US, it was originally an adult novel in Australia; it is very long and shows the breadth of the atrocities of WWII and the Holocaust — there are Nazis and air raids and Jews marching to the camp at Dachau, but it’s also about the power of books and stories in the face of those things. In some ways the dichotomy of good versus evil is so rigid and cleanly segregated that it’s almost unrealistic, but The Book Thief is such a pleasure to read despite the distressing aspects of its war themes that it’s easy to forget its ﬂaws.