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Death narrates 'The Book Thief'

Death takes on a whole new persona in The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. He's not a black-hooded monster toting a scythe. He's the narrator. And he doesn't really like his job. It is with great angst and introspection that he grudgingly carries away souls from Earth.

One would think a book narrated by Death, with the horrors of Nazi Germany as its setting, would be dark. But it isn't.

"This is the best book I've ever read in my whole life," said one member of Between the Covers Book Club in Alexandria. "I loved the way this man wrote."

The main character in The Book Thief is 10-year-old Liesel Meminger. By her younger brother's graveside, the young girl finds a book in the snow - The Grave Digger's Handbook. As she furtively shoves the treasure into her pocket, she commits the first of several book thefts over the next tumultuous years. So begins her fascination with, and love of, books and words.

An orphan, Liesl is taken in by foster parents, a seemingly mismatched couple. Rosa's harsh, loud, constant complaining is peppered with frequent swear words and name-calling. Her patient husband, Hans, is laid back, calm and loving. It is through Hans' loving tutelage that Liesl learns to read - and discovers the power that words yield.

Enticed by her love of the written word, Liesl steals from Nazi book burnings and from the mayor's wife's library.

When Liesl's foster family hides a Jew in the basement, her world changes and words take on a whole new meaning. While war was bringing out the worst in most people, it was bringing out the best in others - especially Rosa.

"It's amazing how people in those horrid situations can be so decent," commented a member of the book club.

The powerful emotions evoked by Zusak were enough to make several grown women in this book club cry - repeatedly. And to read his descriptions of colors and people and settings was to feel as if you were right there.

"When an author can take characters and give you an exact description of their appearance and personality, he's good," another member of the book club said. "It was so descriptive it blew me away. It was very compelling."

Intense and emotional, The Book Thief's poignant messages were many - that in all of us there is a core of good; that death is inevitable but is nothing to fear; the atrocities of Nazi Germany and what life was like for a family who didn't support its regime; the emotional and personal side of war and the effects it has on family and lives; that sometimes, stealing isn't a crime, it's a means for survival; and that a simple thing like a book can change the course of one little girl's life.

Don't let Death scare you away. If you can get past the first few awkward pages, welcome his eloquent words. You'll be rewarded in the end.

The Book Thief earned a 4.5 on a scale of 1 to 5.