The book thief is an intellectually starved girl who learns to read and write and learns to control words by the help of family, friends and enemies.
‘Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope.’
― Kofi Annan
Set in WWII, the book thief is about the struggle of a young girl, Liesel Meminger, who earns her life by stealing books and reading them, changing dramatically from a humiliated, illiterate girl to mature, well-informed and insightful. There is considerable emphasis on the power of words, and Liesel learns to control it through her dedication, determination and help from the people she knows and loves. A great emphasis is laid on what words can do when used with the right amount of power and at the right audience. Different characters in Liesel’s life have contributed to her obsession with all things literary. In a society where literacy isn’t valued or respected, Liesel goes above and beyond to achieve her goal.
Stealing is a crime, but is stealing for the sake of protecting something you hold could have a physical connection with her brother, who died because of hypothermia. However, the second time she strikes it’s for protecting a book from Hitler’s insanity. The burning of books on Hitler’s birthday horrified her and she stole the only book she could. The rescue of the burning, damp ‘The Shoulder Shrug’ is the point where she understands the tyrannical rule of Hitler and fights back in any small way she can. Hans, a warm, kind accordionist and Leisel’s foster father, was a drop-out from school yet his love for literacy is apparent from the way he teaches Liesel to read and new words.
‘Unofficially it was called the midnight class, even though it commenced at around two in the morning’ [The woman with the iron fist; 41]
He is one of the most literature-loving people in the novel despite his lack of education. The Hubbermann’s have barely enough money to fill their stomachs but they books for Liesel, helping her to pave her way to illumination. Another act of Hans which keeps her daughter pursuing her passion is that he never reprimanded Liesel for stealing books. Ilsa Hermann, a grieving mother who loves the world inside books but the loss of her son has made her to lose her purpose, but when Liesel comes along she welcomes her to her enormous library to enjoy what she couldn’t anymore. Without Ilsa’s kindness Liesel’s options for finding books would have been scarce. Leisel also first uses her words to hurt Ilsa for firing her mother, and later she steals books from her but Ilsa didn’t complain and allowed Leisel to steal because it was making her more knowledgeable. Max, a Jew in hiding under the Hubbermann’s protection is unable to take for himself let alone someone else, but Leisel’s reading prompts him to write two books for her, ‘The Standover Man’ and ‘The Word Shaker’. Even though he is persecuted and prosecuted by the German’s but he still struggles against the system by writing against Hitler.
The power of reading is shown when Leisel reads to ‘The Whistler’ to everyone in hiding in the Feidler’s basement, so that panic dissipates, the anxious calm down and the children stop crying. It’s a beautiful moment when people stop talking to listen to someone telling a story rather than when someone’s shouting at them. Frau Holtzapfel appreciates Liesel’s reading ability and asks her to read to her in exchange for coffee. Rudy stuck by her when she went book stealing bringing them closer than ever together. Even death admires Liesel’s command over words. He summed up her life in a few words:
‘She was the book thief without words.
Trust me though, the words were on their way and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like clouds, and she would wring the out, like rain.’ [The heavyweight champion of the school yard; 85]
Germany during the Holocaust was a gloomy, dismal place with scarcity of resources and numerous deaths. Hitler didn’t use firearms and even then hundreds of Jews were killed every day on his order. Hitler was a maniac who was using literacy to rule over the world and to kill anyone who defied his explanation of an ideal human. He uses his words to subjugate those with weaker minds to his will who in turn, use brutal force to conquer the stronger ones. Liesel, whose parents were communists and taken away because of that, realized soon enough the reason of Hitler’s success and she gives an accurate description of it;
‘Without words, the Fuhrer was nothing’. [Ilsa Hermann’s little black book; 551]
The Nazi Germany didn’t care about literature except for one book, ‘Mein Kampf’, the words of Hitler. On Hitler’s birthday a fire was lit in his honor using clothes, wood, scraps and most unfortunately books. This event more than anything proved the extent of brain washing of the Germans. Hans Junior, son of Hans Hubermann and Liesal’s foster brother, was one of those fanatical Germans who worshipped Hitler. Upon seeing Liesel’s collection of books, from which Mein Kampf was conspicuously absent, he said;
‘What trash is this girl reading? She should be reading Mein Kampf.’ [Hitler’s birthday, 1940; 113]
At the end it is Liesel’s love for books that saves her life, as she is happily sitting in the basement writing the story of her life an explosion goes off destroying everyone and everything she loved, her life in shambles there is only one thing left to her, her words. The book thief is one of those books that make one reflect and put things into perspective. Liesel did whatever she could to improve her reading. People scorned her and laughed at her but she persisted. Looking around I see the same thing happening in our society. We scoff at anyone who reads too much, labeling them nerds and geeks, and calling them freaks, never understanding what reading means to them. If the book thief has taught me something, it is to do what I want to no matter the public opinion.