Reviewed by Susan O'Keefe

It's a haunting story. It screams and silences at the same time. It creeps into your thoughts long after finishing the last page. Set in Nazi Germany and spanning pre and post war times, The Book Thief captures readers with uniquely crafted writing by author Markus Zusak. The story's narrator is Death, a voice with much to say about the manner he sweeps in and subtly cradles a war-torn soul in his arms, or relieves the torturous starvation of a concentration camp prisoner.
Aside from Death, a German girl named Liesel Meminger is the story's main character. As the novel opens, Liesel is on a train with her mother, en route to a foster home, supposedly a safer place. Her brother travels with them as well. Tragically, the boy dies on the train. In the snow, near her brother's hastily dug gravesite, is a small book. The symbols are mesmerizing and mysterious. Liesel picks it up and her first act of book thievery is committed. Thus, begins her lifelong bond with books.
At her foster home, Liesel's accordion playing father, Hans, teaches her to read. Her foster mother, Rosa, built like a wardrobe, mostly yells boisterously at the two of them. Rosa scolds them equally and curses when necessary. She is a redeemable character, however, as Rosa is a woman everyone wants around during crisis. And nearly every stage of this book carries a bit of crisis.
A cast of colorful characters resides on the fictitious Himmel Street. Imagine a steady row of poor ashen gray dwellings located on the outskirts of Munich. Kids play soccer in the dirt. A taped up, discarded, nearly airless ball serves as the only equipment. Food is scarce. Clothes are threadbare. Adults face defeat nearly everywhere they turn.
Upon Liesel's arrival on Himmel Street, she is stalked by nightmares. There is the recurring one when her brother coughs and coughs and coughs. Suddenly, there is no more coughing, just a deathly silence. There is also the recurring nightmare as Liesel searches for her mother. During the day, she decides to write letters home. There are no answers though. Straining to hear adult conversations, Liesel barely makes out the word "communist". What does it mean? Why doesn't her mother answer? How long will she live on Himmel Street, and will it be her final home?
As readers' hearts race and palms sweat, a lonely Jewish man knocks on the German family's front door. He checks that he isn't being followed. The man is Max. He has come to cash in on a promise Hans made during World War 1. Max becomes a permanent household fixture in the basement behind the junk. He shares his harrowing story and just like Liesel, is tormented by nightmares. An unlikely friendship is kindled between the two. She becomes his eyes and ears to the outside war ravaged world, and he becomes an avid listener to tales from the life of a preteen.
Death, the narrator, appears early and stays late. There are war veterans who return to Himmel Street only to end their lives due to the sheer torment of living. Air raids force residents to take shelter in nearby basements. The book thief calmly reads aloud from her latest stolen item. Her words allow a sense of comfort to settle lightly on the nervous neighbors, crammed elbow to elbow with barely enough room to breathe.
For income, Rosa washes and irons. She sends Liesel for pick-ups and drop-offs, hoping that customers would pity the girl. The mayor's house is on Liesel's route. His wife, with her tousled hair and empty eyes, opens the door each week in a near catatonic state. Upon entry into the massive foyer, Liesel spies the ultimate prize, a library. This room will serve as a sanctuary for the girl, even when she surrenders to the temptation to take what isn't hers. And the mayor's wife gruelingly tries to find her way back to the living. It seems the narrator has paid a visit to the mayor's son.
Words are incredibly and creatively used on every page of Zusak's novel. From the way he divides the book into nearly a dozen sections to the conversations among characters, there is never repetition or predictability. The story is original and worth every ounce of sadness it invokes. Liesel finds solace in words; words painted on the basement walls, words read while sitting on the library floor at the mayor's house, even words aptly spoken by the Fuhrer himself. The book is a courageous reminder of the simple power ⦠of words.