It’s going to be challenging to write this review because I'm not sure through which “lens” I should approach the task. As a life-long reader with a penchant for challenging fiction, should I review Book Thief as a work of adult literature; or, in my role as a middle school English teacher, should I address its merits as a tool for teaching literature to teens? As it happens, this book wholly succeeds on both levels.
The key is that Book Thief possesses much more depth than usually found in literature marketed to teens. The characters are complex and deeply realized. The text is stuffed with imagery, personification, extended metaphors/allegories (Max’s stories), irony (the use of Mein Kampf in aiding Max's escape), and symbolism (those books!!). Finally, the author’s voice is vivid, lyric, and utterly compelling. Speaking of which …
Much has been made of the author’s choice of Death as the narrator. I gather from an interview with the author that this was largely fortuitous; certainly it was fortunate! Any story about Nazi Germany can’t end well, but by personifying Death, making him (it?) almost compassionate, the deaths become a little less horrific. A group of Jewish prisoners leaping to their death from a precipice is ghastly – but somehow the idea that Death is there, deliberately catching their souls before they land, makes it more bearable. Zusak’s use of foreshadowing is similarly cunning: by planting clues in section/chapter titles and in Death’s off-hand remarks about shocks/horrors to come, the author provides readers a chance to emotionally prepare for them, so that they are (almost) endurable. I contrast this with works like Schindlers List, which are so unrelentingly horrific that they are almost impossible to read. In contrast, Zusak has found a way to present horrific events without compelling us to run away from them.
Another benefit is that this device allows the author to utilize a narrative voice entirely unbound by preconceived notions. Because, face it, is there any period of history about which Americans possess more preconceived notions than Nazi Germany? But by utilizing a narrator whose perspective is entirely bereft of emotion (not to mention cliché), the author allows us to experience even the most familiar elements of his tale – from ideas as innocuous as weather to themes as vast as morality – in ways that fresh, stripped of subliminal baggage, and provocative.
Thanks to all of the above, Book Thief accomplishes what few books about Nazi Germany accomplish, spinning a tale that challenges stereotypes; that presents rather than judges; that depicts humiliation without stripping its characters of dignity; and that forces us to abandon our pre-packaged "mental newsreels" of Nazi Germany in order to replace the images with real faces, real lives, real emotions, real epiphanies, and real understanding.