The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005) is the tender but harrowing tale of Liesel Meminger, the 9-year-old daughter of an unnamed socialist who was imprisoned by the Nazis. Narrated by Death, the book begins with Leisel, her mother and her brother on a train en route to Munich, where Leisel and the boy are to be placed in foster care (it is suggested that the mother is to share her husband’s fate); tragically, the boy dies on the train. At the funeral, the girl steals her first book, a gravediggers’ manual; though she is illiterate, she recognizes that the book will serve as a morbid but desired memento of her brother. Placing his photo inside, she soon is separated from her mother and placed with Hans and Rosa Hubermann, a kind but impoverished couple who need the allowance the Nazis will give them for raising the girl as a proper German.
Shortly thereafter, Leisel meets Rudy Steiner, the impish but handsome neighbor boy who is to be her closest friend. As Leisel learns to read (her first book being the gravediggers’ manual) and as she acquires more of titles (all fictional), she perseveres through many hardships, especially when Hans and Rosa (Papa and Mama) harbor a young Jewish man in their basement.
Death reveals in the beginning that there is not a happy ending and Zusak does not fail to deliver on this unfortunate promise.
The Book Thief was on the NYT Bestseller for 230 week, with good reason. Exhaustive in detail (and somewhat exhausting in length), the narrative provides a realistic and somewhat novel portrayal of life in Nazi Germany; rather than having to remain hidden like Anne Frank, young Liesel sees the numerous horrors up close: book burnings, parades of Jewish prisoners, abject poverty among those who would not sellout to the Nazis. It will forever be a personal favorite (I highly recommend the audiobook version if 550 pages would prove a strain on your schedule).
Suggested related reads: The Diary of Anne Frank; Night by Elie Wiesel; Maus by Art Spiegelman; The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer