Would you choose to read a story told by Death? Many of us in the book group were unsure until we were gripped by the story itself.
Death narrator of The Book Thief tells the story of a girl, Liesel, sent away from her family to be fostered during the rise of the Third Reich and the small town where she and her foster parents live. In many ways, given the prevalence of death during this period of Germany’s history, Death's a central voice in the novel makes perfect sense. What was surprising to the group was the fact that Death’s voice was both poetic and sympathetic. Death loves colour both the dark and the light. The story he tells is about both the vitality of life and love and the brutality of war and oppression.
Liesel is the book thief of the title and it is her relationship to words, particularly written words, which shape her understanding of the world. She picks up a handbook for grave-diggers at the gravesite of her brother and as she uses it to learn to read, builds a relationship with the foster father. Books become entwined in her life even though they are difficult to acquire. Liesel “steals” books from the mayor’s wife who not only turns a blind eye but aids the “theft”. When Liesel’s family hide a young Jewish man, he makes her a book by using the over painted pages of “Mein Kampf” a nod towards the destructive power of words.
The group particularly enjoyed the rich characters of Rudy (Liesel's rebellious and loving friend), Hans (her mench of a foster father), Rosa (acid tongued but loving foster mother) and Max (the Jewish fist-fighter who teaches Liesel how to write her own story).
The book led the group into a discussion of how ordinary people who lived in Germany during World War II have been depicted in the aftermath of the war and the discovery of the death camps. The Book Thief gives an even handed view of how the inhabitants of a German town might have reacted to Hitler’s master plan. Some bought into the plan and some resisted in various ways but all were affected.