Power of words in “The Book Thief”


Sami Gillette

“The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak portrays life in Nazi Germany during World War II as a family attempts to survive, but also maintain their humanity. Death serves as the narrator of the book and through its eyes we are brought to Liesel Meminger, a young teenage girl who arrives in Molching to live with foster parents after her brother dies. The novel explores the growth of her relationship with her caring, but eccentric foster parents (the Hubermanns); a next door boy named Rudy; other local Germans; and the Jewish man, Max, whom the Hubermanns shelter in their basement for two years. **spoiler alert**

While the novel has a well-developed plot and is at times funny, tragic and haunting, what is most interesting is its lyricism and use of powerful imagery.

“Somewhere, far down, there was an itch in his heart, but he made it a point not to scratch it. He was afraid of what might come leaking out.”

Such examples are threaded throughout the story and capture the reader – pull him or her in so that there is no escaping the author’s meaning.

One of the most powerful aspects of the novel is the survey of words – their power and importance. Liesel is the Book Thief. She learns to read and steals books in order to escape from her reality, but also to create a foundation of understanding that strengthens her in a country that has been brain washed. Words foster her relationship with Max who writes to cope with and understand his situation – he is constantly bordering on the brink of possible discovery and death.

Towards the end of the novel both Liesel and Max realize the healing power of words, but also the danger of words. Words were what enabled Adolf Hitler to gain power – his book “Mein Kempf” (My Struggle) leads to the murder of millions of Jews.

This setting solidifies the use of Death as narrator. Rather than appearing eager for its duty, Death is weary and gathers up souls with some detachment , and with sadness (when he allows it). Ironically, Death’s perspective adds an aspect of humanity to often bleak and sometimes tragic events throughout the novel.

In describing one man’s death, Death recalled, “His soul sat up. It met me. Those kinds of souls always do – the best ones. The ones who rise up and say ‘I know who you are and I am ready. Not that I want to go, of course, but I will come.’ Those souls are always light because more of them have been put out. More of them have already found their way to other places.”

Overall, “The Book Thief” is a beautiful and unique perspective on life in Nazi Germany during WWII. Lightened with humour and intensified by quiet, intimate moments it is an inspiring novel that will stay with the reader.

Said Death of Liesel, ”Yes, I’m often reminded of her, and in one of my array of pockets, I have kept her story to retell. It is one of the small legion I carry, each one extraordinary in its own right. Each one an attempt – an immense leap of an attempt – to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it.”