three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
23-July-Aug-2006
By: 
Markus Zusak
user_rating: 
0

A-TheBookThiefDeath, the gentle narrator, opens with some outrageous news: "HERE IS A SMALL FACT: You are going to die." And millions, including soldiers and Jews, will die in this World War II–era story. Others will find redemption in the printed word. At age nine, Liesel Meminger is sent by her Communist parents to live with a foster family in Molching, Germany, for safety. When her younger brother dies en route, she pilfers her first book, The Grave Digger’s Handbook. Her foster father teaches her to read, and Liesel steals more books as she befriends a Jewish refugee and a defiant teenager. Yet though books provide an antidote to the cruelty around her, Death marches on.
Knopf. 552 pages. $16.95. ISBN: 0375831002

Hartford Courant 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[Zusak] writes in a moving but never maudlin way about ordinary Germans caught up in the grim machinery of the Holocaust, who quietly and at enormous risk find ways to subvert it. … It is a testimony to Zusak’s strength and skill as a writer that the tears this story rightly evokes seem the proper tribute to this shattering, haunting book." Carole Goldberg

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"If you start this novel expecting a cornball triumph-of-the-human spirit-through-the-magic-of-reading kind of experience, you’re in for a surprise. … [Liesel’s] story is remarkable in that it’s one of many equally tragic ones—and because it takes a special talent to find its moments of beauty among the rubble." Katie Haegele

San Antonio Exp-News 4 of 5 Stars
"An observant narrator, Death doesn’t hold back the bravery, persistence, twists of fate and love that swirls around ‘book thief’ Liesel. The ending transcends the sadness of war violence that reaches Molching through powerful emotion made possible only from all the storytelling risks author Zusak himself takes." David Hendricks

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Zusak has done a useful thing by hanging the story on the experience of a German civilian, not a camp survivor, and humanizing the choices that ordinary people had to make in the face of the Führer. It’s unlikely young readers will forget what this atrocity looked like through the eyes of Death." Reyhan Harmanci

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The book’s length, subject matter, and approach might give early teen readers pause, but those who can get beyond the rather confusing first pages will find an absorbing and searing narrative. … Death, like Liesel, has a way with words." Elizabeth Chang

New York Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Markus Zusak has not really written Harry Potter and the Holocaust. It just feels that way." Janet Maslin

Critical Summary

Zusak, author of I Am the Messenger, took a risk with his second book by making Death an omniscient narrator—and it largely paid off. Originally published in Australia and marketed for ages 12 and up, The Book Thief will appeal both to sophisticated teens and adults with its engaging characters and heartbreaking story. The Philadelphia Inquirer compared the book’s power to that of a graphic novel, with its "bold blocks of action." If Zusak’s postmodern insertions (Death’s commentary, for example) didn’t please everyone, the only serious criticism came from Janet Maslin, who faulted the book’s "Vonnegut whimsy" and Lemony Snicket-like manipulation. Yet even she admitted that The Book Thief "will be widely read and admired because it tells a story in which books become treasures." And, as we all know, "there’s no arguing with a sentiment like that."