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Dramatic,
Insightful,
Beautiful

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The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak

Published: 2007-09-11
Paperback : 576 pages
533 members reading this now
697 clubs reading this now
501 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 215 of 226 members
It's just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. . . .

Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak's groundbreaking new novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a ...
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Introduction

(It's just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. . . .

Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak's groundbreaking new novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can?t resist?books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau.

This is an unforgettable story about the ability of books to feed the soul.


From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.

Excerpt

DEATH AND CHOCOLATE

First the colors.

Then the humans.

That's usually how I see things.

Or at least, how I try.

***HERE IS A SMALL FACT ***

You are going to die.

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that's only the A's. Just don't ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.

***Reaction to the ***

AFOREMENTIONED fact Does this worry you?

I urge you—don't be afraid.

I'm nothing if not fair.

—Of course, an introduction.

A beginning.

Where are my manners?

I could introduce myself properly, but it's not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A color will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away.

At that moment, you will be lying there (I rarely find people standing up). You will be caked in your own body. There might be a discovery; a scream will dribble down the air. The only sound I'll hear after that will be my own breathing, and the sound of the smell, of my footsteps.

The question is, what color will everything be at that moment when I come for you? What will the sky be saying?

Personally, I like a chocolate-colored sky. Dark, dark chocolate. People say it suits me. I do, however, try to enjoy every color I see—the whole spectrum. A billion or so flavors, none of them quite the same, and a sky to slowly suck on. It takes the edge off the stress. It helps me relax.

***A SMALL THEORY ***

People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and ends, but to me it's quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations, with each passing moment.

A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors.

Waxy yellows, cloud-spat blues. Murky darknesses.

In my line of work, I make it a point to notice them.

As I've been alluding to, my one saving grace is distraction. It keeps me sane. It helps me cope, considering the length of time I've been performing this job. The trouble is, who could ever replace me? Who could step in while I take a break in your stock-standard resort-style vacation destination, whether it be tropical or of the ski trip variety? The answer, of course, is nobody, which has prompted me to make a conscious, deliberate decision—to make distraction my vacation. Needless to say, I vacation in increments. In colors.

Still, it's possible that you might be asking, why does he even need a vacation? What does he need distraction from?

Which brings me to my next point.

It's the leftover humans.

The survivors.

They're the ones I can't stand to look at, although on many occasions I still fail. I deliberately seek out the colors to keep my mind off them, but now and then, I witness the ones who are left behind, crumbling among the jigsaw puzzle of realization, despair, and surprise. They have punctured hearts. They have beaten lungs.

Which in turn brings me to the subject I am telling you about tonight, or today, or whatever the hour and color. It's the story of one of those perpetual survivors—an expert at being left behind.

It's just a small story really, about, among other things:

* A girl

* Some words

* An accordionist

* Some fanatical Germans

* A Jewish fist fighter

* And quite a lot of thievery

I saw the book thief three times.

BESIDE THE RAILWAY LINE

First up is something white. Of the blinding kind.

Some of you are most likely thinking that white is not really a color and all of that tired sort of nonsense. Well, I'm here to tell you that it is. White is without question a color, and personally, I don't think you want to argue with me.

***A REASSURING ANNOUNCEMENT ***

Please, be calm, despite that previous threat.

I am all bluster—

I am not violent.

I am not malicious.

I am a result.

Yes, it was white.

It felt as though the whole globe was dressed in snow. Like it had pulled it on, the way you pull on a sweater. Next to the train line, footprints were sunken to their shins. Trees wore blankets of ice.

As you might expect, someone had died.

They couldn't just leave him on the ground. For now, it wasn't such a problem, but very soon, the track ahead would be cleared and the train would need to move on.

There were two guards.

There was one mother and her daughter.

One corpse.

The mother, the girl, and the corpse remained stubborn and silent.

"Well, what else do you want me to do?"

The guards were tall and short. The tall one always spoke first, though he was not in charge. He looked at the smaller, rounder one. The one with the juicy red face.

"Well," was the response, "we can't just leave them like this, can we?"

The tall one was losing patience. "Why not?"

And the smaller one damn near exploded. He looked up at the tall one's chin and cried, "Spinnst du! Are you stupid?!" The abhorrence on his cheeks was growing thicker by the moment. His skin widened. "Come on," he said, traipsing over the snow. "We'll carry all three of them back on if we have to. We'll notify the next stop."

As for me, I had already made the most elementary of mistakes. I can't explain to you the severity of my self-disappointment. Originally, I'd done everything right:

I studied the blinding, white-snow sky who stood at the window of the moving train. I practically inhaled it, but still, I wavered. I buckled—I became interested. In the girl. Curiosity got the better of me, and I resigned myself to stay as long as my schedule allowed, and I watched.

Twenty-three minutes later, when the train was stopped, I climbed out with them.

A small soul was in my arms.

I stood a little to the right.

The dynamic train guard duo made their way back to the mother, the girl, and the small male corpse. I clearly remember that my breath was loud that day. I'm surprised the guards didn't notice me as they walked by. The world was sagging now, under the weight of all that snow.

Perhaps ten meters to my left, the pale, empty-stomached girl was standing, frost-stricken.

Her mouth jittered.

Her cold arms were folded.

Tears were frozen to the book thief's face. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

From the Author's web site:

•Discuss the symbolism of Death as the omniscient narrator of the novel. What are Death’s feelings for each victim? Describe Death’s attempt to resist Liesel. Death states, “I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both.” (p. 491) What is ugly and beautiful about Liesel, Rosa and Hans Hubermann, Max Vandenburg, Rudy Steiner, and Mrs. Hermann? Why is Death haunted by humans?


•What is ironic about Liesel’s obsession with stealing books? Discuss other
uses of irony in the novel.


•The Grave Digger’s Handbook is the first book Liesel steals. Why did she take the book? What is significant about the titles of the books she steals? Discuss why she hides The Grave Digger’s Handbook under her mattress. Describe Hans Hubermann’s reaction when he discovers the book. What does the act of book thievery teach Liesel about life and death? Explain Rudy’s reaction when he discovers that Liesel is a book thief. How does stealing books from the mayor’s house lead to a friendship with the mayor’s wife? Explain how Liesel’s own attempt to write a book saves her life.


•Liesel believes that Hans Hubermann’s eyes show kindness, and from the beginning she feels closer to him than to Rosa Hubermann. How does Hans gain Liesel’s love and trust? Debate whether Liesel is a substitute for Hans’s children, who have strayed from the family. Why is it so difficult for Rosa to demonstrate the same warmth toward Liesel? Discuss how Liesel’s relationship with Rosa changes by the end of the novel.


•Abandonment is a central theme in the novel. The reader knows that Liesel feels abandoned by her mother and by the death of her brother. How does she equate love with abandonment? At what point does she understand why she was abandoned by her mother? Who else abandons Liesel in the novel? Debate whether she was abandoned by circumstance or by the heart.


•Guilt is another recurring theme in the novel. Hans Hubermann’s life was spared in France during World War I, and Erik Vandenburg’s life was taken. Explain why Hans feels guilty about Erik’s death. Guilt is a powerful emotion that may cause a person to become unhappy and despondent. Discuss how Hans channels his guilt into helping others. Explain Max Vandenburg’s thought, “Living was living. The price was guilt and shame.” (p. 208) Why does he feel guilt and shame?


•Compare and contrast the lives of Liesel and Max Vandenburg. How does Max’s life give Liesel purpose? At what point do Liesel and Max become friends? Max gives Liesel a story called “The Standover Man” for her birthday. What is the significance of this story?


•Death says that Liesel was a girl “with a mountain to climb.” (p. 86) What is her mountain? Who are her climbing partners? What is her greatest obstacle? At what point does she reach the summit of her mountain? Describe her descent. What does she discover at the foot of her mountain?


•Hans Junior, a Nazi soldier, calls his dad a coward because he doesn’t belong to the Nazi Party. He feels that you are either for Hitler or against him. How does it take courage to oppose Hitler? There isn’t one coward in the Hubermann household. Discuss how they demonstrate courage throughout the novel.


•Describe Liesel’s friendship with Rudy. How does their friendship change and grow throughout the novel? Death says that Rudy doesn’t offer his friendship “for free.” (p. 51) What does Rudy want from Liesel? Discuss Death’s statement, “The only thing worse than a boy who hates you [is] a boy who loves you.” (p. 52) Why is it diffi cult for Liesel to love Rudy? Discuss why Liesel tells Mr. Steiner that she kissed Rudy’s dead body.


•How does Zusak use the literary device of foreshadowing to pull the reader
into the story?


•Liesel Meminger lived to be an old woman. Death says that he would like to tell the book thief about beauty and brutality, but those are things that she had lived. How does her life represent beauty in the wake of brutality? Discuss how Zusak’s poetic writing style enhances the beauty of Liesel’s story.

Suggested by Members

How to resist to Nazism?
by AgnesGros (see profile) 04/28/16

go into further detail with the words written before each chapter - there were likes & dislikes
by timothyj4 (see profile) 04/16/15

We used the "official" publisher's questions.
by LadyD918 (see profile) 04/05/15

The book contains very good questions.
by barblibrarian (see profile) 03/01/15

Do you think there is ever a good reason a book should be censored?
by ElizLynch (see profile) 05/16/14

What book would you steal and why?
by char83 (see profile) 05/14/14

Could the Holocaust happen again today?
Would you personally hide a fugitive from ethnic cleansing?
by LibraryMichael (see profile) 12/18/13

Discuss each main character and how they were necessary to the book as a whole
Discuss the theme of abandonment
Discuss why the author named the book
by LJT0001 (see profile) 10/08/13

Did you like the narrator?
Did you like how the narrator told you what happened in advance?
by lizblair (see profile) 08/31/13

The questions in the back of the paperback copies are quite good and facilitate a lively discussion.
by debbie1962 (see profile) 06/20/12

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Q&A with Author Markus Zusak:

What inspired you to write about a hungry, illiterate girl who has such a desire to read that she steals books?

I think it’s just working on a book over and over again. I heard stories of cities on fi re, teenagers who were whipped for giving starving Jewish people bread on their way to concentration camps, and people huddled in bomb shelters. . . . But I also had a story about a book thief set in my hometown of Sydney. I just brought the two ideas together and realized the importance of words in Nazi Germany. I thought of Hitler destroying people with words, and now I had a girl who was stealing them back, as she read books with the young Jewish man in her basement and calmed people down in the bomb shelters. She writes her own story–and it’s a beautiful story– through the ugliness of the world that surrounds her.

How did you decide to make Death the narrator of the book?

With great difficulty! I thought, “Here’s a book set during war. Everyone says war and death are best friends.” Death is ever-present during war, so here was the perfect choice to narrate The Book Thief. At fi rst, though, Death was too mean. He was supercilious, and enjoying his work too much. He’d say extremely creepy things and delight in all the souls he was picking up . . . and the book wasn’t working. So I went to a fi rst-person narration, a simple third-person narration . . . and six months later I came back to Death–but this time, Death was to be exhausted from his eternal existence and his job. He was to be afraid of humans–because, after all, he was there to see the obliteration we’ve perpetrated on each other throughout the ages–and he would now be telling this story to prove to himself that humans are actually worth it.

Liesel has an uncanny understanding of people and an ability to befriend those who most need companionship . Who do you think is Liesel’s most unforgettable friend?

For me it’s Rudy, but a lot of people will tell me it’s Hans Hubermann, Max, the mayor’s wife, or even Rosa Hubermann. Rudy is just my favorite character. From the moment he painted himself black and became Jesse Owens, he was my favorite. Liesel kissing his dusty, bomb-hit lips was probably the most devastating part of the book for me to write. . . . I was a mess. On the other hand, I’m also drawn to all of the relationships Liesel forms, even her reading with Frau Holtzapfel, and the return of her son. Even Ludwig Schmeikl–the boy she beats up on the playground and reconciles with at the book burning . . . I think the relationship with Rosa is the most unexpected, though. The moment when she sees Rosa with the accordion strapped to her (when Hans is sent to the war) is when she realizes exactly how much love her foster mother is capable of.

Your use of figurative language seems natural and effortless. Is this something that you have to work to develop, or is it innately a part of your writing style?

I like the idea that every page in every book can have a gem on it. It’s probably what I love most about writing–that words can be used in a way that’s like a child playing in a sandpit, rearranging things, swapping them around. They’re the best moments in a day of writing–when an image appears that you didn’t know would be there when you started work in the morning. At other stages, it takes time. It took three years to write this book, and some images remained from start to finish, but others were considered and reconsidered dozens of times, if not more. Often, to keep the workday flowing, I’ll continue writing the story and then come back later to develop an image that hasn’t worked from the outset. I might even take it out completely.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
by mrstodd (see profile) 11/08/19

 
by [email protected] (see profile) 09/20/19

An absorbing story of war through the eyes of Death.

 
by dash71 (see profile) 06/01/19

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