Starred review from January 30, 2006
This hefty volume is an achievement—a challenging book in both length and subject, and best suited to sophisticated older readers. The narrator is Death himself, a companionable if sarcastic fellow, who travels the globe "handing souls to the conveyor belt of eternity." Death keeps plenty busy during the course of this WWII tale, even though Zusak (I Am the Messenger
) works in miniature, focusing on the lives of ordinary Germans in a small town outside Munich. Liesel Meminger, the book thief, is nine when she pockets The Gravedigger's Handbook
, found in a snowy cemetery after her little brother's funeral. Liesel's father—a "Kommunist"—is already missing when her mother hands her into the care of the Hubermanns. Rosa Hubermann has a sharp tongue, but Hans has eyes "made of kindness." He helps Liesel overcome her nightmares by teaching her to read late at night. Hans is haunted himself, by the Jewish soldier who saved his life during WWI. His promise to repay that debt comes due when the man's son, Max, shows up on his doorstep. This "small story," as Death calls it, threads together gem-like scenes of the fates of families in this tight community, and is punctuated by Max's affecting, primitive artwork rendered on painted-over pages from Mein Kampf
. Death also directly addresses readers in frequent asides; Zusak's playfulness with language leavens the horror and makes the theme even more resonant—words can save your life. As a storyteller, Death has a bad habit of forecasting ("I'm spoiling the ending," he admits halfway through his tale). It's a measure of how successfully Zusak has humanized these characters that even though we know they are doomed, it's no less devastating when Death finally reaches them. Ages 12-up.