It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will be busier still.
By her brother’s graveside, Liesel’s life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Gravedigger’s Handbook, left behind there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery.
So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordian-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, wherever there are books to be found.
But these are dangerous times. When Liesel’s foster family hides a Jewish fist-fighter in their basement, Liesel’s world is both opened up, and closed down.
In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time.
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An Excerpt from The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
That last time.
That red sky . . .
How does a book thief end up kneeling and howling and flanked by a man-made heap of ridiculous, greasy, cooked-up rubble?
Years earlier, the start was snow.
The time had come. For one.
A SPECTACULARLY TRAGIC MOMENT
A train was moving quickly.
It was packed with humans.
A six-year-old boy died in the third carriage.
The book thief and her brother were traveling down toward Munich, where they would soon be given over to foster parents. We now know, of course, that the boy didn’t make it.
HOW IT HAPPENED
There was an intense spurt of coughing.
Almost an inspired spurt.
And soon after—nothing.
When the coughing stopped, there was nothing but the nothingness of life moving on with a shuffle, or a near-silent twitch. A suddenness found its way onto his lips then, which were a corroded brown color and peeling, like old paint. In desperate need of redoing.
Their mother was asleep.
I entered the train.
My feet stepped through the cluttered aisle and my palm was over his mouth in an instant.
No one noticed.
The train galloped on.
Except the girl.
With one eye open, one still in a dream, the book thief—also known as Liesel Meminger—could see without question that her younger brother, Werner, was now sideways and dead.
His blue eyes stared at the floor.
Prior to waking up, the book thief was dreaming about the Führer, Adolf Hitler. In the dream, she was attending a rally at which he spoke, looking at the skull-colored part in his hair and the perfect square of his mustache. She was listening contentedly to the torrent of words spilling from his mouth. His sentences glowed in the light. In a quieter moment, he actually crouched down and smiled at her. She returned the smile and said, “Guten Tag, Herr Führer. Wie geht’s dir heut?” She hadn’t learned to speak too well, or even to read, as she had rarely frequented school. The reason for that she would find out in due course.
Just as the Führer was about to reply, she woke up.
It was January 1939. She was nine years old, soon to be ten.
Her brother was dead.
One eye open.
One still in a dream.
It would be better for a complete dream, I think, but I really have no control over that.
The second eye jumped awake and she caught me out, no doubt about it. It was exactly when I knelt down and extracted his soul, holding it limply in my swollen arms. He warmed up soon after, but when I picked him up originally, the boy’s spirit was soft and cold, like ice cream. He started melting in my arms. Then warming up completely. Healing.
For Liesel Meminger, there was the imprisoned stiffness of movement and the staggered onslaught of thoughts. Es stimmt nicht. This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening.
And the shaking.
Why do they always shake them?
Yes, I know, I know, I assume it has something to do with instinct. To stem the flow of truth. Her heart at that point was slippery and hot, and loud, so loud so loud.
Stupidly, I stayed. I watched.
Next, her mother.
She woke her up with the same distraught shake.
If you can’t imagine it, think clumsy silence. Think bits and pieces of floating despair. And drowning in a train.
Snow had been falling consistently, and the service to Munich was forced to stop due to faulty track work. There was a woman wailing. A girl stood numbly next to her.
In panic, the mother opened the door.
She climbed down into the snow, holding the small body.
What could the girl do but follow?
As you’ve been informed, two guards also exited the train. They discussed and argued over what to do. The situation was unsavory to say the least. It was eventually decided that all three of them should be taken to the next township and left there to sort things out.
This time, the train limped through the snowed-in country.
It hobbled in and stopped.
They stepped onto the platform, the body in her mother’s arms.
The boy was getting heavy.
Liesel had no idea where she was. All was white, and as they remained at the station, she could only stare at the faded lettering of the sign in front of her. For Liesel, the town was nameless, and it was there that her brother, Werner, was buried two days later. Witnesses included a priest and two shivering grave diggers.