The nine-year-old daughter of allegedly communist parents, Liesel Meminger is taken to live with Hans and Rosa Hubermann soon after her younger brother’s death. Hans is as gentle and good-humored as Rosa is rough, and he helps Liesel transition to her new home. Hans begins by teaching Liesel to read at night when she wakes from nightmares about her brother. Using a book she has stolen from the young man who dug her brother’s grave, the two spend many hours at their secret lessons. Liesel grows to love her new father and becomes adept at avoiding Rosa’s wrath, most of the time.
Thus Liesel embarks on a “life of crime”, taking discarded or unwanted books, sometimes with the tacit permission of the owner and the help of her best friend Rudy. The two youngsters share sports and stories of wartime deprivation. Life becomes dangerous when a young Jew named Max arrives at the Hubermann home one night. Liesel then learns the history of Hans’ accordion and its connection to the stranger whom her foster parents are hiding. Liesel also discovers that in spite of Rosa’s abusiveness, she has a generous heart.
Liesel and Max grow quite close, confiding their dreams and fears to each other. Max provides Liesel an opportunity to give of herself to someone who is even more needy than she. Liesel finds many little ways to share the outside world with Max as he hides in the Hubermann basement, and Max finds a way to repay her as best he can. Their kindness contrasts with the desperation of neighbors who struggle to survive during wartime and the harshness of a government that disregards its citizens’ rights.
Death narrates Zusak’s novel with a poetic style that underlines the lesson that Max strives to convey to Liesel: that words have power. This ubiquitous figure makes the ravages of war concrete for the reader: no sugarcoating, no touching happy endings, just a stark reality that communicates man’s capacity for cruelty as well as for courage and compassion.
Jennifer Minicus is a mother and teacher living in Ridgewood, NJ.