When Marcus Zusak was a youngster growing up in Australia his mother told him a story from her own childhood. She’d seen a young boy offer a piece of bread to a starving Jewish prisoner being herded through the streets of Munich. As a result of this act of kindness, both prisoner and boy were whipped by a Nazi guard.
In The Book Thief, Rudy is the boy who carries bread to the prisoners and who dies at the hands of the Nazis at age fourteen. Although he’s not the main character in the book—he’s the sidekick of the book thief—Rudy is the one I came to care most about. In a Politics and Prose interview, I once heard Zusak comment, “I cried the most for Rudy as I was writing.”
I cried the most for Rudy as I was reading. Like all the characters in this book he is exquisitely drawn.
Liesel, the book thief, has at age ten, become the foster child of Hans and Rosa Hubermann, who are also hiding a Jew named Max Vandenburg. The plot evolves from the relationships among these three characters as well as the friendship between Rudy and Liesel. Liesel is taught to read by her foster father and develops such a love of books that she begins to steal them, one at a time, from the vast library of the mayor’s wife—a kind woman who proves to be a true friend.
The narrator of the book–who uses the old-fashioned device of commenting in periodic asides to the reader–is also a major character: Death. Death guides us through the book with his surprisingly human take on events. However, he’s more than a little afraid of humans, having witnessed their capacity for cruelty. For this reason, he decides to tell the stories of people who live courageous lives—people such as Liesel, Hans, Max, Rosa, and Rudy.
The Book Thief is unsettling to read, clearly a book of darkness. But more significantly, it’s also a story of light shining out of darkness.