It took a few pages for this reviewer to realise that Death was the narrator in this wonderfully moving tale of Germany during the Second World War. Here Death as narrator is not so very different from Terry Pratchett's Death as character. Both share the same insight into human foibles and have the air of benevolent despots. Another wayward thought came to mind – echoes of the Hitler Youth in Sound of Music. From the sublime comparison to the utterly ridiculous.
Leisel Meminger is a child of Nazi Germany. She has lost her kin to a ruthless regime and is fostered by a couple who have lost their progeny to an ideology. However, neither Lisa nor Hans and Rosa have lost their humanity in a sea of man's inhumanity to man. As Australian author, Lily Brett, says of her parents who were Holocaust survivors, "They often described people of their acquaintance as a good person." Leisel and her foster parents come into that category, risking their lives to protect and comfort the persecuted Jewish race.
Lisa's story is a lesson for the individual as well as for the world. Twice she misses the opportunity to show her love and affection for people who obviously adore her. It is also representative of millions which could have been recorded world-wide. Now there are very few remaining who live to tell their tale.
This reviewer last shed tears reading a novel when Judy was killed by a falling tree while rescuing baby Pip in Seven Little Australians. Why, she couldn't even respond when Mum asked her to set the table. Well, that was her excuse anyway. However, this is not a book which dwells on atrocities to be categorised as a tear-jerker. It is the way everyday folk cope with a less then everyday existence which is most moving.
Dachau is within walking or rather stumbling distance of Molching for starving Jews, but like many of their compatriots, the children who are major characters in this book are unaware of its purpose. They live out their childhood getting into scrapes and harbouring guilty secrets, but are aware that life could be much better for them if their country were not at war.
Why the title? Well, what you see is what you get. Starved of a basic education as a young child, Leisel is fascinated by the printed word and steals her first tome from the graveside of her young brother. The kindly Hans fosters her love of books by teaching her to read, often at all hours of the night, but books are in short supply. Until... she accidentally comes across a treasure trove of them, and that is how she comes to earn her nickname. It is this fascination with reading and writing which saves her life when many on Himmel Street lose theirs.
If this desperate time in recent world history interests you, read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, and suites of poems by Lily Brett such as The Auschwitz Poems.