Course Hero. "The Book Thief Study Guide." Course Hero. 23 June 2017. Web. 21 Sep. 2018. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Book-Thief/>.
Course Hero. (2017, June 23). The Book Thief Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved September 21, 2018, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Book-Thief/
(Course Hero, 2017)
Course Hero. "The Book Thief Study Guide." June 23, 2017. Accessed September 21, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Book-Thief/.
Course Hero, "The Book Thief Study Guide," June 23, 2017, accessed September 21, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Book-Thief/.
Hauntingly narrated by Death, The Book Thief tells the story of 10-year-old Liesel Meminger, a German girl sent to live with foster parents during the Holocaust. As the Nazi presence strengthens in her town, Liesel struggles to understand the destruction happening around her. She finds that understanding in the books she steals, sharing the power of words with Max, a Jewish man whom her foster parents hide from the Nazis.
Australian author Markus Zusak was shocked when readers worldwide loved the novel. Since its publication in 2005 it has sold more than 10 million copies and has been translated into more than 40 languages. It won the Sydney Taylor Book Award for excellence in Jewish literature and a Michael L. Printz honor medal.
Zusak began writing The Book Thief in 2002, intending it to be a novella and made Death his narrator. But something about it didn't work. He rewrote it from his main character's point of view. He changed the tense from past to present and back again. He rewrote it in a third-person point of view. After changing the beginning of the book more than 150 times, he found the voice he was looking for.
Death became the narrator again, but, as Zusak explained, "Originally, he enjoyed his work too much. I took a break from the book and it struck me. What if Death is haunted by humans?" The novel grew over time to more than 500 pages before it was finally ready for publication, three years after the author had started it.
Zusak worried a "580-page book set in Nazi Germany, narrated by Death" would "sink like a stone." Believing the book wouldn't succeed freed him to write it exactly the way he wanted; he was writing only for himself, not for the audience he felt wouldn't read it. The remarkable popularity of his novel, with sales of over 10 million copies, shocked and thrilled him, because, as he said, the book "came to mean everything to me."
Zusak's mother was German, and his father was Austrian. Both saw atrocities under the Nazis before they moved to Australia, and the stories they told their son were the inspiration for The Book Thief. One memory of his mother's moved Zusak especially:
She heard a noise that sounded like cattle being herded down the street. It was people being herded to a concentration camp. There was an old man who couldn't keep up, and a boy gave him a piece of bread. They were both whipped, one for giving the bread, one for taking it.
A similar story appears in the book, when the main character, Liesel, sees her friend Hans give a Jewish man a piece of bread, and Nazis beat both men as a result.
The Book Thief rocketed to the top of the New York Times best-seller list and stayed on the list for 375 weeks. Zusak was shocked at the book's popularity, but as the New York Times review pointed out:
It's the kind of book that can be life-changing, because without ever denying the essential amorality and randomness of the natural order, "The Book Thief" offers us a believable, hard-won hope. That hope is embodied in Liesel, who grows into a good and generous person despite the suffering all around her, and finally becomes a human even Death can love. The hope we see in Liesel is unassailable, the kind you can hang on to in the midst of poverty and war and violence.
Zusak was still trying to figure out the most effective way to narrate The Book Thief when he went to Tasmania, a country crisscrossed by rivers. He thought of the last line of a book he had read, A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean (1976). The line was "I am haunted by waters." As Zusak explains it:
I thought, 'Aaaahhh, Death is afraid of us and haunted by us, because he is on hand to see all the terrible things we do to each other. It makes sense that he is telling the story to prove to himself that humans can be beautiful and selfless as well.'
The idea of Death being haunted by humans, as Maclean's narrator was haunted by waters, helped him finally create the character of Death, who narrates the book.
The New York Times said in its review of The Book Thief it was "brilliant and hugely ambitious," while USA Today called it "unsettling and unsentimental, yet ultimately poetic" and Kirkus Reviews noted it was "elegant, philosophical and moving ... Beautiful and important." Reviews of the film version, however, felt it was sentimental and dull. They described it as "superficial" and "a misfire." The New York Times called it "a shameless piece of Oscar-seeking Holocaust kitsch," noting in the movie it seemed the Holocaust "wasn't that bad."
Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse was cast as Liesel after the director auditioned more than 1,000 girls. She hadn't even reached her teens when she began filming, and her only knowledge about the Holocaust came from a book by Karen Levine called Hana's Suitcase (2002), about a girl who died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. To learn about the Nazis and the horrors of their actions, Sophie watched other films about the Holocaust, including Schindler's List (1993), Life is Beautiful (1997), and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008). She was shocked by what she learned:
This is impossible, how could people do this? I felt so bad. It gave me the feeling that I had to do this movie. Because then all my friends will see it, and they will know a bit more about it.
Though Rudy isn't the main character in the novel, he became Zusak's favorite. When the author was doing research for the book, he came across a picture of Jesse Owens, the African American runner who competed and won gold medals in four races in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Zusak immediately knew Rudy would worship Jesse Owens, and he said, "And the very moment that Rudy paints himself black with charcoal and becomes Jesse Owens he becomes my favorite character and the one I cried for the most when I was writing the ending."
Zusak claimed the best advice he received as a writer was it was a difficult craft, and getting published would entail repeated rejection. Writing The Book Thief was especially hard for him because the story meant so much to him. He explained:
I failed thousands of times writing The Book Thief, and that book now means everything to me. Of course, I have many doubts and fears about that book, too, but some of what I feel are the best ideas in it came to me when I was working away for apparently no result. Failure has been my best friend as a writer.
Zusak didn't have a particular audience in mind when he wrote The Book Thief; he was simply "trying to write someone's favorite book." Though he had claimed he wrote the book for himself, he also said, "At the end of the day, you can't avoid thinking about your audience." In Australia the book was published as an adult book. In the United States, where the market for YA books is huge, it was published as a young adult book. Zusak stated, "I think 75 percent of The Book Thief readers in U.S. are adult. In Australia, it's 90 percent." He trusted the marketing of the book to his publishers but noted, "I consider myself lucky that there are teenagers out there who have read it."