This is a story narrated by an overworked angel of death, during World War II. It is the story of a good German family – foster parents and a foster child – who hides a Jew in their basement. The father is kind hearted, and ironically, it may have been a thoughtless kind act that compelled Max, the Jew the family was hiding, to run. The father, Hans, had watched Jews being marched through the town of Molching. He was compelled to hand a piece of bread to a prisoner. He and the prisoner were flogged, and thereafter he awaited his punishment.
This small example from the novel highlights the theme: while we lack control over world events and even our own circumstances, it is worthwhile to do the best we can. There are no answers as to why we should, not even from the angel of death. He’s simply a worker, like the air raid clean up crew; he takes souls as they depart from their bodies. He talks about his master: not God, but the abstract death. Just the events that cause human bodies to expire. There is little comfort in an afterlife: it isn’t mentioned at all. The carrier of souls here doesn’t choose between good and bad souls. There is no judgment (well it comes out at one point – he pities the Germans who hide in bomb shelters less than the prisoners being exterminated in death camps), but he doesn’t talk about a destination for the souls. No mention of heaven or hell. He simply takes. So why should we do good, then, without the fear of explicit eternal punishment or reward?
I think Zusak’s answer is the following. Liesel is the book thief of the title. She stole her first book on the way to her foster parents. Her brother dies on the way, and when the grave diggers came to bury him, a grave digger’s manul fell out. That was her first. She later rescued books from book burnings. And finally, the mayor’s wife took pity on her and left a window open – so Liesel can sneak into the library and “steal” her books. Liesel learns to read. The pay off comes when Max, the Jew hiding in her basement, pens a story about Hitler and Liesel. The story is heartbreaking because it describes the hate sown by Hitler, and the only remedy isn’t to use words to vanquish evil, but to provide a path out of evil. And only two people follow the path.
Zusak doesn’t bother with an easy parable, but he clearly wishes to inspire people to do good. This book provides a path, through a forest of evil. The reasons to be good? One is, because you’ll never know what the true consequences are. For example, Liesel’s neighbors took a stand. The parents refused the SS to draft their son. The father, Alex, was punished by being drafted. But the son, Rudy, didn’t have to die at the front. Instead, later, a stray bombing by the Allies destroyed the street Liesel and Rudy lived on. Including Alex’s family. Actual, dramatic irony. But here’s another example: Liesel survived that same bombing, because she was in the basement, writing her life’s story. She had been inspired by the gifts of those around her (the mayor’s wife for giving her a blank book, Max for writing her story, her foster parents’ kindness.)
Rudy, Liesel’s friend in the novel, because he was bullied and loved Liesel, wanted to show his worth. He became an excellent runner and excelled at school. He became, in fact, the perfect Aryan boy. All because he wanted to impress Liesel. Would it have been worth it to be ignored instead? Why not achieve? Liesel did appreciate Rudy; both of them did make right choices. Rudy, for example, was also inspired by Hans’s example of handing bread to a Jewish prisoner. He roped Liesel into tossing bread to Jewish prisoners as they were marched through time. They were chased, but this time, they escaped punishment. Still later, because Max had left Liesel’s house to avoid being a burden to her family, he was caught and eventually was marched through town. Liesel then took strength from the fact that her father had stood his ground; she called out to Max, gave him what little comfort she could by acknowledging his wonderful gift to her, and was whipped. Rudy, in his own kindness, kept Liesel from being hurt any worse.
No easy answers here. Making the right choices does not guarantee a happy outcome. The important point seems to be that the soul is enriched by positive choices, in the present. Liesel found a father and came to acknowledge that her foster mother is also a good person. A bit crusty, but good-souled. She gained a friend in the mayor’s wife and in Rudy. She learned the meaning of courage, of making a stand. She learned to read. She gained a friend in Max. These moments enrich the soul and makes one happy in the present. This too is another reason to do good; it is another way of feeling good.
Interestingly, we see Nazis in the context of their every day life; we do not see gross acts of violence and depravity. Instead, there are always a segment of the population who are true believers. They try a little harder to please the Fuehrer. They snap their salutes a little straighter, their “Heil Hitlers” a little louder. It is easy for them to be so brave, marching starved prisoners behind the front. The one soldier we do see has returned from Stalingrad, bearing bad news to his mother. His brother had died in Russia. The solider eventually could not bear the guilt of survival and hangs himself. So the disgust with the war is translated into a desire to escape, not to live. That is the opposite reaction of the citizenry, so happy to condemn Hans and Liesel for showing compassion to fellow humans.
I am not sure when I would let my boys read this novel. It has harsh lessons, but the novel remains gentle. It teaches about death and consequences. It shows a way to live, to focus on positive experiences. I suppose they ought to read it when they are tweeners (Liesel’s and Rudy’s age), but with lots of parental input, helping them tie in the scenes in the book with the theme.
Again, this is simply a story of kids and adults doing the right things and suffering for it and yet continuing on the quiet path of courage. The punishment lasts a moment and is painful, but the reader knows the punishment is wrong and unjust. The novel is about the moments in between, and although it isn’t always a happy time, at least the characters can live with themselves, if not their neighbors.
Update: I reformatted the text so that the text was separated into paragraphs. Not sure why it didn’t do that to begin with.