Archives for category: a lot of foreshadowing/blatant spoiling

I started this project to review The Book Thief all the way back in March of 2014. However, after uploading my review of “I Read The Book Thief – Part Three, Chapters Five-Eight” back in August of 2014, I went on an abrupt hiatus for over half a year, and didn’t publish another review of the book for well over a year.

I started school shortly after August of 2014, so it is true that after that point I suddenly had a lot less free time on my hand, but there was still plenty of time when I was out of school and could have reviewed the book further. So the only real explanation for why my reviews became so infrequent is in this confession: I simply lost interest in the book.

I know there are many Zusak fans that will be horrified at me even saying this, such as Daniel, for instance. However, this is what I think is my explanation: Most of the book was building up to Max arriving at 33 Himmel Street, and it was foreshadowed almost from the beginning, so as soon as it did, all the tension went away.

Obviously plenty will disagree with this, but the problem for me is that this is the point where the book was supposed to start, but given the slice-of-life, relaxed style of the story, all that can happen at this point is that there will be a few tense moments where Max is at risk of being discovered and either eventually he will be or he will not be.

I also must admit that the novelty of the book has worn off for me, as I am now more used to the style and quality of the writing itself. In addition most of my readers have now lost interest and disappeared. I have decided, however, to continue a little bit further with the project, but it is likely I will not finish it.

So, without further ado, let us proceed into Part Five, titled “the whistler,” a book that Liesel had been reading in the Mayor’s library. So I think it is safe to conclude that this will be the book stolen from said library, which I now wish the back of the book had not spoiled for me.

The subtitle is

featuring:
a floating book – the gamblers – a small ghost – two haircuts – rudy’s youth – losers and sketches – a whistler and some shoes – three acts of stupidity – and a frightened boy with frozen legs

As much as I hate to say it, even these enigmatic titles don’t prove too intriguing for me, since I know the “small ghost” can obviously not turn out to be literal, and it will be explained how the other more interesting of the titles (involving “the floating book” and “the frightened boy”) come together, as soon as Zusak begins with

THE FLOATING BOOK (Part I)

As if Zusak is trying to once more pique our interest, he starts off this midway point in the book by giving us yet another glimpse of the future, this time December 1941. He paints a picture in our minds of Rudy retrieving the floating book in the Amper River and asking Liesel for a kiss. Death then finally does what I had feared he would do right from the very beginning. He gives us information about when a major character will die.

How about a kiss?
How about a kiss?
Poor Rudy.

*** A SMALL ANNOUNCEMENT ABOUT RUDY STEINER***
He didn’t deserve to die the way he did.

That’s it, no ceremony. He just hurls it at us, as an unapologetic, baldfaced fact: Rudy is going to die in this book. A character we have grown to know and love will meet a horrible death before his time, and we have to read the rest of the book waiting for it to happen.

Zusak doesn’t even bother to switch up our expectations, and preserve a bit of mystery as to when Rudy will die, as the lesser writer Sara Gruen did in the prologue of Water for Elephants (there by not revealing who died or who the killer was). He predicts the reader’s initial impression and then refutes it in the voice of Death:

Preemptively, you conclude, as I would, that Rudy died that very same day, of hypothermia. He did not. Recollections like those merely remind me that he was not deserving of the fate that met him a little under two years later.

He then describes to us in vivid detail that Rudy will die when he is hit by a bomb, surrounded by a pile of rubble. Despite wanting Liesel to kiss him all his life, she will only give it to him after he is dead. And we are forced to feel the full tragic weight of this now, nearly 2 years before it will happen.

So we have to ask ourselves why Zusak has done this. Why is he giving us all this information now?

Perhaps it’s so we know this war will result in characters we have grown to know and love dying, even if Max somehow survives. Maybe it’s so that every time we read an interaction with Rudy and Liesel, we will already be aware of the future tragedy underneath. Maybe it’s simply to shock the readers, by doing what a writer is told never to do. All we can really do is speculate at this point. But Zusak does at least end the chapter on a nice note:

He’d have been glad to witness her kissing his dusty, bomb-hit lips.
Yes, I know it.
In the darkness of my dark-beating heart, I know. He’d have loved it, all right.
You see?
Even death has a heart.

This sounds like a profound and beautiful metaphor, but I’m not sure what it is really supposed to mean. Death took Rudy before his time, but he also had the heart to let him die with a friend, so he is not as completely heartless as he may seem. In real life, however, death can be very heartless to us, so this is more a moment for the fictional Death as personified in the narrative, but it may be true that we can find some solace and heart even in death itself, if we look hard enough. This is the closest and fairest interpretation I can make of it myself.

THE GAMBLERS (A SEVEN-SIDED DIE)

Zusak opens this chapter, however, by acknowledging his readers’ shock and possible outrage at having all that information spoiled for them, and attempts to justify himself by speaking literally to the readers, albeit through the voice of Death:

Of course, I’m being rude. I’m spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it. I have given you two events in advance, because I don’t have much interest in building mystery. Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me.

This makes sense for Death, of course, since Death is evidently omniscient and knows all that will happen and how everyone will die, and sees no point in keeping it from the readers. But what Zusak is really trying to justify here is his return to an older form of storytelling. Shakespeare, for instance, opened Romeo and Juliet by telling us how it would end, that Romeo and Juliet would die and their death would end their family’s feud, because in those days, tragedies ended in death, and comedies ended in a wedding, and it was basically a given the titular characters in a Shakespearean tragedy would die, so the point was to intrigue the Elizabethean playgoers in watching the play to see how the star-crossed lovers would meet their demise.

He even asks us, if having given us all that information, we aren’t the slightest bit interested to see how it plays out.

Well, I am, to be honest, and I’m sure other readers were even more so than me, but there’s still the immediate issue of Max being added to the narrative and the tension of whether he will be discovered or not.

It started with gambling. Roll a die by hiding a Jew and this is how you live. This is how it looks.

So accordingly, the chapter is divided into seven vignettes of life in the Hubermann household, with the hidden Jew added to the family. These are separated by illustrated dice, that feature an added dot for every vignette.

The first one is titled “The Haircut,” which demonstrates that life is apparently so normal with Max now that the only passionate arguments Hans and Rosa have about it anymore are where the scissors are to give him a haircut, after he finally requests one. The vignette is cute, in how Max politely rejects Hans and Rosa’s help and asks Liesel to cut his hair, instead. That’s all this part ultimately amounts to, one more bonding moment between Max and Liesel.

The second “side of the die” is titled “The Newspaper”, and opens in May with Liesel reading the aforementioned The Whistler book in the Mayor’s library.

She looked up. She imagined herself walking over, gently tearing some fluffy hair to the side, and whispering in the woman’s ear:
“There’s a Jew in my basement.”
As the book quivered in her lap, the secret sat in her mouth. It made itself comfortable. It crossed its legs.

This is probably a realistic portrayal of the tension and conflict that would go on inside a 12-year-old asked to keep a secret of this magnitude, and it’s entertaining to read, but it also seems silly that the only apparent risk to Max being discovered at this point is one of the three people in Molching who know about him literally telling someone the secret. The book does, however, move on to something more interesting, having to do with the book that gives this part its title. The Mayor’s wife keeps trying to literally give Liesel the book every time she leaves the library, to which she refuses, and Death even explains:

If there was one thing about Liesel Meminger, her stealing was not gratuitous. She only stole books on what she felt was a need-to-have basis. Currently, she had enough.

So the question really does remain of how she will get to the point where she will literally be stealing the book, and how the hell it will end up floating in the river less than a year from now.

But then Liesel goes home to see Max, and the rest of the section is spent showing another way of bonding Liesel and Max have with each other. It shows how depressing Max’s situation continues to be, as he is never allowed out of the basement now that the summer is coming on, but he does have some consolation in that Liesel gives him newspapers regularly, and he enjoys reading them with her, as well as sharing her books. Zusak also spells out Max and Liesel’s relationship in a way I don’t really like:

Where Hans Hubermann and Erik Vandenburg were ultimately united by music, Max and Liesel were held together by the quiet gathering of words.

This just seems like the kind of analysis I wish Zusak would let the readers make instead of spelling it out. He also gives us some cute moments describing how Liesel thinks about Max, but we’ve already seen plenty of those, and I don’t know. Maybe this just isn’t that interesting to write about. It’s cute and touching to read to yourself when you can quickly pass through it and move on, but when you have to linger on it and attempt to analyze it, it just leaves you wondering how many of these moments we need to see before they become distractions.

The third one, titled “The Weatherman,” is more of the same, but it is also a bit sweeter and more genuinely charming. Max asks Liesel to describe to him what the weather is like outside, and Liesel gives him this description:

When she returned to the basement, she told him.
“The sky is blue today, Max, and there is a big long cloud, and it’s stretched out, like a rope. At the end of it, the sun is like a yellow hole….”

This visual description is silly and lackluster by Zusak’s standards, but it works because it is presented as a child’s description and Max even reflects that it could be nothing else. But I think it primarily succeeds because we get something charming and beautiful out of a tragic fact: Max has no idea what the outside world looks like anymore, and can rely only on his memories and imagination, so even a childish description like this while, not plausible, at least creates a fascinating mental image for him that’s in a way, better than if he were able to view the real thing.

On the wall, he painted a long, tightly knotted rope with a dripping yellow sun at the end of it, as if you could dive right into it. On the ropy cloud, he drew two figures-a thin girl and a withering Jew-and they were walking, arms balanced, toward that dripping sun. Beneath the picture, he wrote the following sentence.

*** THE WALL WRITTEN WORDS ***
OF MAX VANDENBURG
It was a Monday, and they walked
on a tightrope to the sun.

I can understand what Zusak meant about trying to include a treasure on every page. I still can’t help but reflect that even this scene could have easily been cut, but it does demonstrate the power of imagination, which is sometimes the only refuge we have from the cold, harsh realities of life.

The next vignette or “side of the die,” titled “The Boxer,” however, only illustrates the opposite, how our imagination can sometimes only make those realities worse or portray them vividly in the same style of hyperbolic fantasy.

This section is probably the most well-written and honestly well worth discussing. At first, it breaks from the few moments of happiness Max has and throws us into the aforementioned harsh realities of how he leads his everyday life. Most of his time is spent in boredom and isolation from the outside world, simply watching time go by and feeling the urge to disappear. Zusak then sets us into the main narrative of this section by showing the projects Max comes up with to occupy his time, primarily keeping his body in shape through a strict exercise regime.

As a teenager in Stuttgart, he could reach fifty push-ups at a time. Now, at the age of twenty-four, perhaps fifteen pounds lighter than his usual weight, he could barely make it to ten. After a week, he was completing three sets each of sixteen push-ups and twenty-two sit-ups. When he was finished, he would sit against the basement wall with his paint-can friends, feeling his pulse in his teeth. His muscles felt like cake.

Zusak really does succeed in creating empathy for Max, not just by describing his sad state of affairs, but also in making the reader imagine what it would like if this were their own life. He, then, however, shows what, in Max’s mind, all the training is building up to, and throws us into a vivid fantasy sequence.

“In the blue corner,” he quietly commentated, “we have the champion of the world, the Aryan masterpiece-the Führer.” He breathed and turned. “And in the red corner, we have the Jewish, rat-faced challenger-Max Vandenburg.”

It not only gives us a look into how Max’s brain works but also serves as an extended visual metaphor for the Jews’ persecution during this time period at the hands of Hitler. Zusak portrays this imaginary boxing match very vividly. What is truly sad is that while many people would fantasize about beating and humiliating their opponents, even in Max’s fantasies, the entire audience is against him, and the referee of the boxing match is openly in favor of Hitler and anti-Semitic.

There was only one round, and it lasted hours, and for the most part, nothing changed.
The
Führer pounded away at the punching-bag Jew.
Jewish blood was everywhere.

Apart from the rawness and brutality of this imagery, what’s depressing is that ignoring the fantasy it takes place in, it all reads as completely true. It makes you wonder, more so than Inglourious Basterds ever did, how this was allowed to happen, and how Hitler maintained the country’s support for so long. Zusak exposes this all too well, ending Max’s fantasy with a tragic twist. Max eventually gets the upper hand on Hitler, pummels him to a pulp, but rather than being a gratifying Tarantino-esque revenge fantasy sequence, Hitler appears to give up, but then even though he can fight no longer, he stands on the ropes and draws on the power of words, his sheer charisma, and the buried racism, hatred, and prejudice of the German people to summon the entire audience to come together and beat the shit out of Max:

“Can you see that this enemy has found its ways—its despicable ways—through our armor, and that clearly, I cannot stand up here alone and fight him?” The words were visible. They dropped from his mouth like jewels. “Look at him! Take a good look.” They looked. At the bloodied Max Vandenburg. “As we speak, he is plotting his way into your neighborhood. He’s moving in next door. He’s infesting you with his family and he’s about to take you over. He—“ Hitler glanced at him a moment, with disgust. “He will soon own you, until it is he who stands not at the counter of your grocery shop, but sits in the back, smoking his pipe. Before you know it, you’ll be working for him at minimum wage while he can hardly walk from the weight in his pockets. Will you simply stand there and let him do this? Will you stand by as your leaders did in the past, when they gave your land to everyone else, when they sold your country for the price of a few signatures? Will you stand out there, powerless? Or”—and now he stepped one rung higher—“will you climb up into this ring with me?”

This is one part of the book that rings true in its harsh reality. Hitler himself was not the only cause of the Holocaust, and for all his genocidal hatred and insanity, he never would have gotten anywhere if it were not for the underlying fears and distrust of minorities already brooding beneath the hearts of his citizens, which he merely took advantage of.

And so, as Max’s own fantasies turn against him once again, Liesel comes in to offer Max the only mild consolations she can provide, and Zusak ends the chapter by returning us to the reality:

Dark.
Nothing but dark now.
Just basement. Just Jew.

For all of Zusak’s optimism about humanity, he offers no comfort here and leaves the reader feeling like Max, abandoned in a dark corner, left to simply ponder and question the evils of the world.

The next section, titled “The New Dream: A Few Nights Later,” (despite taking place in the afternoon, not at night) throws a strange curveball into things, though, when Max tells Liesel about his fantasy boxing matches and Liesel asks the simple question of who wins.

At first, he was going to answer that no one did, but then he noticed the paint cans, the drop sheets, and the growing pile of newspapers in the periphery of his vision. He watched the words, the long cloud, and the figures on the wall.
“I do,” he said.

Is he saying this just for her benefit, because he can’t handle admitting the truth? Or is it because it will give him hope of beating Hitler eventually if he continues training? Is it because he has the freedom to even fantasize about fighting Hitler, rather than being held in a concentration camp by his government? The narrative leaves this strictly ambiguous, which I suppose is for the better.

The next section, titled “The Painters,” is yet more mysterious. We see Max doing something to rise his spirits by removing the pages of Mein Kampf and painting over them as part of a project to, in essence, remove the last vestiges of Hitler’s work and create something new and potentially beautiful. He even manages to enlist the rest of the Hubermanns in helping him with this, as well, and when Liesel is invited to help them, she remembers how Max described his fantasies and seems to become inspired:

Many months later, he would also paint over the cover of that book and give it a new title, after one of the stories he would write and illustrate inside it.
That afternoon, in the secret ground below 33 Himmel Street, the Hubermanns, Liesel Meminger, and Max Vandenburg prepared the pages of 
The Word Shaker.

This storyline seems to come out of nowhere, and the chapter never returns to it, either. I genuinely don’t understand where this is going at all, or what this Word Shaker book will be about, but from Liesel’s fantasy inspiration, it appears the book may contain some kind of moral vindication against Hitler and the Nazis. I’m interested to see where this will go.

But now the story moves to “The Showdown” and the aforementioned “seventh side of the die”. The extended metaphor of this chapter’s title is now fully explained. A die typically has six sides, so obviously for any die to roll seven sides… Well, I’ll let Death explain it.

You roll and watch it coming, realizing completely that this is no regular die. You claim it to be bad luck, but you’ve known all along that it had to come. You brought it into the room. The table could smell it on your breath. The Jew was sticking out of your pocket from the outset. He’s smeared to your lapel, and the moment you roll, you know it’s a seven-the one thing that somehow finds a way to hurt you. It lands. It stares you in each eye, miraculous and loathsome, and you turn away with it feeding on your chest.

This is another area of the chapter which contains genuinely great writing and it is also the only point where Zusak succeeds in creating genuine dread
based on Max’s presence in the Hubermann household:

Of no consequence.
That’s what you make yourself believe – because deep down, you know that this small piece of changing fortune is a signal of things to come. You hide a Jew. You pay. Somehow or other, you must.

I’m willing to admit this legitimately had me on the edge of my seat, wondering what would happen to either expose Max or start the chain of events that led to him being exposed. However, Death then when speaking again about Liesel’s recollections writing in the basement years later, admits the incident in this chapter actually had nothing to do with Max at all:

In the great scheme of things, she reasoned that Rosa being fired by the mayor and his wife was not bad luck at all. It had nothing whatsoever to do with hiding Jews. It had everything to do with the greater context of the war.

Well… yeah. That kind of goes without saying. And……. THAT’S IT? How is that some shocking “seventh side of the die”? Hell, they already lost all of their other customers already, so while sad and troublesome, this shouldn’t even be too surprising. So it’s just a shame that that writing, while great, seems to have been basically wasted already.

And the real climax of this chapter doesn’t even come when Liesel is ready to leave the Mayor’s house after reading once more and Frau Hermann (after finally nagging Liesel into taking The Whistler with her) gives her the envelope for Rosa that obviously means the laundry services have been canceled. No, the real drama comes afterwards, in Liesel’s reaction, which is very interesting to discuss. To be fair, Zusak does spend a lot of time carefully showing just how heartbroken and genuinely hurt Liesel is by this:

When the others had canceled, it hadn’t hurt so much. There was always the mayor, his library, and her connection with his wife. Also, this was the last one, the last hope, gone. This time, it felt like the greatest betrayal.
……
Liesel felt it now in the shoulders. The pain, the impact of final rejection.
That’s it? she asked internally. You just boot me out?

Liesel probably could have seen it coming, true, but I think on some level she saw Frau Hermann as something close to a true friend to her, someone she had formed a connection with, a “kindred spirit,” so to speak, in the words of Anne from Anne of Green Gables. And now said friend has cut off one of their last means of viable income.

It’s true, however, that when Liesel reads the letter, it is revealed that it was the Mayor’s decision to “terminate the services of Rosa Hubermann” and not his wife’s, and his reasoning is understandable, if not questionable and a self-serving political maneuver the likes of when George W. Bush decided to stop playing golf in the face of the war in Iraq:

For the most part, he explained that he would be a hypocrite if he maintained his own small luxuries while advising others to prepare for harder times.

This does make sense, though, in a way, even if as Liesel feels, it would help her family personally deal with harder times, and it is as mentioned, a political maneuver and a distraction from the fact that he’s a rich, powerful man who obviously has plenty of luxuries not afforded to the middle-class and lower, in any case. Zusak does highlight in several cases that Liesel’s anger is irrational, such as when she assumes the Mayor’s wife is being dishonest in offering to let Liesel come back to read (even though it’s doubtful she would make the offer if she were unwilling to keep it), and when she accuses Frau Hermann of giving her the book as an act of pity, even though she had been offered it many times beforehand.

Liesel is right to be angry, but there is also an open layer of resentment towards the privileged upper-class, which we hadn’t really seen from her before, and stands in contrast to Max, who only resents himself for exploiting the Hubermanns’ middle-class privilege.

I will also admit that on a personal level, I strongly dislike scenes in media where a character suddenly has an irrational outburst at someone and tells them everything that they have kept bottled up inside (this occurs once in Water for Elephants). It is usually unconvincing and only an act of manufacturing conflict, but that isn’t entirely what happens here, to be fair. Liesel does lose control and snap at the Mayor’s wife, but not impulsively, only as part of a deliberate decision, albeit one motivated and driven by temporary rage. She even gets all the way to the end of Munich Street before storming back and pounding on the door so she can confront the woman, first only expressing anger at having their income cut off abruptly and giving her only a book in return, but then she soon takes it farther:

The injury of words.
Yes, the brutality of words.
She summoned them from someplace she only now recognized and hurled them at Ilsa Hermann. “It’s about time,” she informed her, “that you do your own stinking washing anyway. It’s about time you faced the fact that your son is dead. He got killed! He got strangled and cut up more than twenty years ago! Or did he freeze to death? Either way, he’s dead! He’s dead and it’s pathetic that you sit here shivering in your own house to suffer for it. You think you’re the only one?”

Liesel is so harsh here that Zusak immediately takes the time out to show us that these words are motivated by Liesel’s own repressed feelings of loss toward her dead brother. He even uses the spirit of Liesel’s brother appearing to her on the porch as visual symbolism, and the scene in general is described very vividly. We can practically feel the venom in Liesel’s words and the hurt in Frau Hermann’s speechless and stunned face. And as Zusak describes Liesel metaphorically throwing her brother down the steps, and his subsequent disappearance, I could picture it very clearly in my mind, and hear the sound of Liesel throwing The Whistler back down on the cement for Frau Hermann to retrieve.

I expected to be much harsher on this scene, but in the end, I’m willing to leave it open to debate as to whether it’s well done or not. The purpose is obviously to illustrate Liesel discovering the power of words to harm others, and she has shown this kind of anger before, both in beating up the two boys and in expressing her hatred of Hitler, and it does go a long way in explaining why Liesel would be angry enough to steal from this woman later on.

The following scene, also, is one of my favorite parts, when Liesel tells Rosa what has transpired:

“It was my fault,” Liesel answered. “Completely. I insulted the mayor’s wife and told her to stop crying over her dead son. I called her pathetic. That was when they fired you. Here.” She walked to the wooden spoons, grabbed a handful, and placed them in front of her. “Take your pick.”
Rosa touched one and picked it up, but she did not wield it. “I don’t believe you.”
Liesel was torn between distress and total mystification. The one time she desperately wanted a
 Watschen and she couldn’t get one! “It’s my fault.”
“It’s not your fault,” Mama said, and she even stood and stroked Liesel’s waxy, unwashed hair. “I know you wouldn’t say those things.”
“I said them!”
“All right, you said them.”

XD No, seriously, I know this moment provides vital character development for Rosa (she starts off the scene numb rather than angry and eventually dumps the wooden spoons out on the floor), but that doesn’t change the fact that it reads like a scene from The Simpsons. Try reading it with Bart and Marge Simpson (or Lisa and Homer) in your mind instead, and tell me it isn’t flat-out hilarious.

There are a few more moments of character development for Liesel before the chapter ends. She goes down into the basement and starts joining Max in his exercise regime, taking her first lesson in push-ups from him that night. This is something I can relate to on a personal level, as I am underweight and not only have I been encouraging myself to practice push-ups lately, I went to the gym every week when I was in school as part of a fitness program set up by the English teacher. I’m only mentioning this to give some insight into my personal connection with the material, and what’s interesting in terms of the story is that it shows Liesel wants to become stronger physically, not just mentally, as if that will help her deal with these troubling times.

The chapter ends with a very nice scene between Liesel and Hans.

Somehow, Hans Hubermann always knew what to say, when to stay, and when to leave her be. Perhaps Liesel was the one thing he was a true expert at.

I’m quoting this bit only because we haven’t seen Hans for a while, and I have to admit that as much as I may have lost interest in this book, I can never get sick of Hans Hubermann.

But the moment between Liesel and Hans, and the way in which he comforts her, is actually quite serious.

“Papa,” she whispered, “I think I’m going to hell.”

Liesel has shown little guilt for the way she spoke to the Mayor’s wife up to this point, and it’s strange to see her suddenly experiencing fear of the afterlife, when this book has been pretty religiously neutral so far and we haven’t seen too many religious thoughts from her up to this point, and beatings in Catholic schools aren’t the kind of experiences that inspire strong belief in God.

It is a question many children ponder, though, and to be honest, I myself had that fear when I was younger than Liesel, and even had trouble sleeping at night because of it. When I told my father, he was exasperated and furious, telling me that I was not going to Hell because there was no such place and it made him angry because the concept of Hell was specifically invented to scare people like me into doing what the Bible wanted me to. Hans is much more gentle by contrast, simply telling Liesel that she won’t be going to Hell. This may offend some Christians in the certainty of his answer, but it’s simple, and exactly the right answer to give Liesel at that moment of utmost vulnerability, and I appreciate that the chapter ends on this note of real tenderness between them.

RUDY’S YOUTH

Interestingly enough, a character who has even been more absent from the narrative lately is the same one presaged to die young, Rudy Steiner. So it’s fitting that Zusak decides to devote the next chapter to him.

The chapter opens in medias res by giving us

*** A PORTRAIT OF RUDY STEINER:***
JULY 1941
Strings of mud clench his face. His tie
is a pendulum, long dead in its clock.
His lemon, lamp-lit hair is disheveled
and he wears a sad, absurd smile.

Giving us a portrait of his life at this point obviously is intended to take on a sad significance, since we now know he is only 2 years away from death. So while it is a relief to see him again now, it is alarming to wonder what led him to be covered in mud and have his hair disheveled. The scenario then gets yet more confusing as Zusak describes Rudy standing near a step saying “All is shit.”

Zusak, then, however, backs up to explain what led to this moment and what Rudy has been doing for the past few months that he was absent from the story for.

In the first half of 1941, while Liesel went about the business of concealing Max Vandenburg, stealing newspapers, and telling off mayors’ wives, Rudy was enduring a new life of his own, at the Hitler Youth.

This chapter’s title has a double-meaning in a way, as it refers both to Rudy’s literal youth and to the fact that one of his experiences in his Hitler Youth group is described in this chapter.

If only Tommy Müller hadn’t disappeared for seven hours on one of the coldest days in Munich’s history, six years earlier. His ear infections and nerve damage were still contorting the marching pattern at the Hitler Youth, which, I can assure you, was not a positive thing.

This passage contains another continuity error from Zusak: When Tommy Müller is introduced in Part One, Rudy informs Liesel that “When he was five years old, he got lost at the markets on the coldest day of the year. Three hours later, when they found him, he was frozen solid…” Only three hours, not seven. I realize this is, of course, nitpicking, and it’s possible Rudy simply got this detail wrong, but I always feel tempted to point details like this out when I notice them. Also, I legitimately don’t know what to say about this chapter, because it feels so completely inconsequential. All that happens from here is that after Tommy Müller’s hearing problems keep disrupting the march, the leader gets pissed off at him, and Rudy sticks up for Tommy and is punished by being forced to run laps, perform drills, and throw himself in the mud. Rudy and Tommy then go back to Himmel Street, where Rudy tells Liesel the story, the in medias res opening now makes sense, and he tries to get Liesel to kiss him again using pity. Obviously, she refuses, which of course is a harsh blow to us now that we know when she finally will kiss him.

It seems like the only purpose of this chapter is to show how harsh and strict the Hitler Youth organization is, and to show Rudy performing a good deed for someone, so that when he dies, we won’t simply fixate on his stealing from Otto Sturm and nearly disabling him. Other than that, there’s not much to discuss, and the chapter genuinely feels like filler. It does, however, end with a weak segue into the next chapter:

She also realized it was most likely those sodden days at the Hitler Youth that had fed his, and subsequently her own, desire for crime.
After all, despite the usual bouts of rain, summer was beginning to arrive properly. The
 Klar apples should have been ripening. There was more stealing to be done.

THE LOSERS

I was not looking forward to this, and as much as I hate to end this review on a negative note, I have to say it: this may just be the worst chapter in the book.

The last time we heard of our friendly group of apple-thieving delinquents, the leader, Arthur Berg, had moved away to Cologne, which means that when Ludwig Schmeikl’s brother invites them to the river to meet and discuss their new plans for theft, the group will be under new management.

“So are you the leader now?” Rudy had asked, but Andy shook his head, heavy with disappointment. He clearly wished that he had what it took.

Why doesn’t he have what it takes? He observed Arthur’s leadership for a long time, the other members of the group all know him and trust him. And most importantly, they know that he’s one of them and can relate to him, as opposed to

***THE NEW ARTHUR BERG***
He had windy hair and cloudy eyes,
and he was the kind of delinquent
who had no other reason to
steal except that he enjoyed it.
His name was Viktor Chemmel.

Markus Zusak is violating one of the cardinal rules of writing in this chapter: Show, Don’t Tell. Before we have ever met Viktor or read a line of dialogue spoken by him, we already know what to think of him because Zusak just told us. Also, I know this is solely personal opinion, but the visual descriptions are getting worse, as Zusak seems to be forcing them more and more. We don’t know what color his hair and eyes are, and when I try to imagine cloudy eyes, I just imagine someone whose pupils are dilated or rolled back in their head due to some type of brain injury.

Unlike most people engaged in the various arts of thievery, Viktor Chemmel had it all. He lived in the best part of Molching, high up in a villa that had been fumigated when the Jews were driven out. He had money. He had cigarettes. What he wanted, however, was more.

Then why are any of the lower-class, struggling-to-survive kids that constitute the rest of this group putting up with this little shit? Why would someone in Viktor’s social standing even socialize with people like Liesel and Rudy, and thus even know about this group? Zusak attempts to answer the question here:

At face value, Viktor Chemmel was clearly your typical teenage bullshit artist. Unfortunately, when he felt like revealing it, he also possessed a certain charisma, a kind of follow me.

But you know what? I’m not buying it. All Zusak gives as an example of this is one speech where he delivers meaningless rhetoric about “wanting more” that I’m amazed doesn’t provoke this band of thieves into rolling this rich punk for everything he’s got.

“So where are these two deviants you’ve been bragging about? It’s ten past four already.”
“Not by my watch,” said Rudy.
Viktor Chemmel propped himself up on an elbow. “You’re not wearing a watch.”
“Would I be here if I was rich enough to own a watch?”

Then how do you know what time it is, and why did you say that, Rudy? Also, this is an organization of thieves. Granted, under Berg they were apparently only supposed to steal absolute necessities such as food, but it’s perfectly reasonable to expect someone practiced in thievery to break the honor code and steal a watch. Also, this group has been disbanded for nearly 9 months now, and none of these people have starved to death, so I refuse to believe that they desperately “need” the food, either.

Viktor then displays his charisma and ability to inspire loyalty in his followers even further by calling Liesel a whore for no reason and blowing cigarette smoke in her face. I swear, I am not even making up that last one. But it’s all right, because Zusak makes sure to inform us:

Liesel did not cough.

Which would be very very impressive if this were a Disney cartoon instead of a serious YA/adult novel. But no, apparently that’s supposed to show Liesel’s tough-as-nails, she is. Well, I would never consider myself to be a particularly tough guy, and I have never smoked a cigarette, either, but when I was in high school almost everyone else did, and they would sit outside smoking during break every day. I got so used to it that a girl I was talking to blew smoke in my face by accident one time while exhaling, and I just ignored it and we continued talking as if nothing had happened. And realistically, anyone living in 1941 Europe would be so continually exposed to second-hand smoke that NO FUCKING SHIT THEY WOULDN’T COUGH. WHO CARES? 

Zusak then attempts to justify yet again why the group is allowing Viktor to be in charge:

It was the same group as the previous year, the only exception being the leader. Liesel wondered why none of the other boys had assumed the helm, but looking from face to face, she realized that none of them had it. They had no qualms about stealing, but they needed to be told. They liked to be told, and Viktor Chemmel liked to be the teller. It was a nice microcosm.
For a moment, Liesel longed for the reappearance of Arthur Berg. Or would he, too, have fallen under the leadership of Chemmel? It didn’t matter. Liesel only knew that Arthur Berg did not have a tyrannical bone in his body, whereas the new leader had hundreds of them. Last year, she knew that if she was stuck in a tree, Arthur would come back for her, despite claiming otherwise. This year, by comparison, she was instantly aware that Viktor Chemmel wouldn’t even bother to look back.

Again, Zusak is Telling, not Showing. I never liked Berg much, either, and I think he only gave Otto back his basket and treated his group fairly to help justify his criminal behavior, but if he was so great, why didn’t he appoint someone else to take his place before he left, so this kind of thing wouldn’t happen? And ignoring this arbitrary definition of who “had it”, I again refuse to believe that this entire group, of which every other member has stayed, wouldn’t have met and selected someone else to be the leader in Berg’s place, instead of letting this rich prick nobody knew come in and push them around.

But just in case we hadn’t absolutely made our minds up how to feel about Viktor, Rudy flat-out asks Liesel if she likes him, right after he pointlessly calls her a whore again.

“Do you?”
Rudy paused a moment. “I think he’s a complete bastard.”
“Me too.”

I have to admit I’m more tolerant than most of characters who only exist in the narrative simply to be hated. But say what you will about characters such as Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter books or Gabe in the first Percy Jackson book, for instance, while those characters were underdeveloped and one-dimensional, the authors still showed us why we shouldn’t like them, instead of just telling us over and over again. And even when they didn’t, those were children’s books. This is supposed to be a serious YA novel that is aimed at adults, as well. I know most authors break the Show, Don’t Tell rule in some form, even legitimately great ones, but this is too much to ignore. This is crossing the line, and I’m sick and damn tired of it. Viktor Chemmel is an asshole. Viktor Chemmel is an asshole. Does everybody hate this character who has been created solely to be hated? Yes, so let’s move on.

The chapter ends with the group raiding an apple farm, only to find next to no fruit is blooming, and what is isn’t very high-quality. Liesel and Rudy are only given one apple to share, and this is the only time Zusak actually admits Viktor is partially justified in anything he does: “In fairness, the takings were incredibly poor, but Viktor Chemmel also ran a tighter ship.

But Rudy still decides it’s a good idea to challenge their new leader, because that won’t create friction within the group that has inexplicably not challenged him already, so Viktor actually obliges him.

“One lousy apple?”
“Here.” A half-eaten one was also tossed their way, landing chewed-side-down in the dirt. “You can have that one, too.”

Considering Rudy and Liesel are supposed to be desperate for food and the apple would be as good as new once the saliva and mud have been thoroughly washed off, this seems incredibly reasonable, but Rudy still insists on getting on their leader’s bad side, so Viktor resorts to physically attacking him, and in the end he almost strangles Rudy to death. After letting Rudy go, he calls Liesel a slut and Rudy spits blood and saliva at his feet (not at his face, mind you) before leaving. Viktor is so offended by this he vows to make Rudy “pay for that at a later date, my friend.

Say what you will about Viktor Chemmel, but he certainly had patience and a good memory. It took him approximately five months to turn his statement into a true one.

Well, Bertram Cooper waited nearly three years to take advantage of Don Draper being Dick Whitman, but that is incredibly patient for someone who just impulsively almost strangled the same person he’s threatening to death. But I think I have the blueprint for the rest of the chapter now:
Liesel and Rudy are going to steal the book from the Mayor’s wife for some reason, even though she tried to force Liesel to take it earlier, her motivations behind doing so the only bit of mystery left that does intrigue me. Viktor Chemmel will steal the book five months from now (December 1941) and throw it in the river, and the chapter will end with Rudy going in to retrieve it and asking Liesel again for a kiss we know he will never receive until he is tragically dead at the age of 15 two years from now.

I apologize to Daniel and all the other Book Thief fans for being so harsh in this post, but I have honestly tried to be as fair as I can for as long as possible. I don’t hate the book, and I still think Markus Zusak is primarily skilled at writing, and I will read the rest of Part 5 to see how the story actually does come together and attempt to review it, and I hope I can be more positive in doing so. To anyone who was offended by this, you can feel free to explain to me why I’m wrong in the comments.


Here are some examples of the increasingly strange and desperate visual metaphors in this chapter that I didn’t have time to mention there:

The town that afternoon was covered in a yellow mist, which stroked the rooftops as if they were pets and filled up the streets like a bath. (This makes me imagine a mysterious yellow fog taking over the town and somehow pausing to form a literal hand stroking the rooftops gently.)

…a sun that had broken through like God sitting down after he’d eaten too much for his dinner. (I genuinely don’t understand what this means.)

Jewish blood was everywhere. Like red rain clouds on the white-sky canvas at their feet. (But rain clouds are not typically red, so this metaphor is stretching.)

The words were visible. They dropped from his mouth like jewels.  (I don’t understand in what circumstance jewels would literally fall out of someone’s mouth, and this is very silly to picture.)

This one, however, is legitimately powerful and well done:

Grimly, she realized that clocks don’t make a sound that even remotely resembles ticking, tocking. It was more the sound of a hammer, upside down, hacking methodically at the earth. It was the sound of a grave. 

There is also an extended visual metaphor of the Mayor’s wife physically beaten and battered after being verbally assaulted by Liesel, which is on-the-nose but disturbingly effective, and I haven’t made up my mind how to feel about it.

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There’s something interesting I didn’t notice about this book that I want to talk about. I was reading the TV Tropes article Slice of Life and the first entry for Literature is this:
“The Book Thief is surprisingly slice of life, considering where it takes place.”

I was immediately shocked and thrilled to realize how true that is! And once I got thinking about it, it was something that actually gives me a lot more respect for the book, in fact, because I’ve always resented the constraints of a book’s plot structure in how it strains verisimilitude. The Casual Vacancy was obviously slice of life, I said as much there, and that’s why I was so much less bothered by its slow pace than a lot of people were.

The thing about The Book Thief that I have to respect is that it does seem to have a central plot, basically, and the narrative does play out to get to a certain point, but Zusak’s gift is in making it all feel natural, even as he tells us beforehand what it’s building up to. For example, the first chapter in this second part served to describe Liesel’s book theft at Hitler’s birthday in 1940, and the following 3 chapters take Liesel to that point as a human being as she’s reaching that point in history. She goes through happiness, sadness, mild hopefulness, then complete and utter despair, then emerges triumphant and ready for

HITLER’S BIRTHDAY, 1940

Since we’ve gotten this far, Death opens off with one paragraph showing the point where it became clear Liesel could never get a reply from her mother (the foster care office has lost track of her; also her name is Paula!) just to resolve that once and for all.

It’s well into April at this point, so the only thing left is mild preparation at this point:

This particular year, with the development of the war and Hitler’s current victorious position, the Nazi partisans of Molching wanted the celebration to be especially befitting. There would be a parade. Marching. Music. Singing. There would be a fire.

An interesting thing for me is that I was only ever aware of Hitler’s 50th birthday in 1939 being a big event, designed to intimidate the world and show off Germany’s military might, to the point Mad Men included a joking comparison of an office Christmas party to it to illustrate the place it had in the American lexicon by 1964 (comical faux-German accents: “Did you enjoy the Fuhrer’s birthday?” “May he live for a thousand years!”).

I suppose it’s obvious, though, that Hitler’s birthday was celebrated broadly in Germany every year (despite the fact that I get mainly results relating to The Book Thief and even Daniel’s post when I google “hitler’s birthday 1940”). We get some interesting information about the event, too:

It would commemorate not only the Führer‘s birthday, but the victory over his enemies and over the restraints that had held Germany back since the end of World War I. “Any materials,” it requested, “from such times – newspapers, posters, books, flags – and any found propaganda of our enemies should be brought forward to the Nazi Party office on Munich Street.” Even Schiller Strasse – the road of yellow stars – which was still awaiting its renovation, was ransacked one last time, to find something, anything, to burn in the name of the Führer’s glory. It would have come as no surprise if certain members of the party had gone away and published a thousand or so books or posters of poisonous moral matter simply to incinerate them.

This feels exactly like the sort of funny historical fact that would be mentioned as an aside in a real textbook, though I’m not really interested in whether it’s true or not.

Also, we get more evidence of Death’s strange repetition of certain facts, perhaps in an effort to drill the events of this story into our mind somehow. Just as he repeated that Werner had died on the train ad nauseum, he tells us for the third or fourth time that Liesel will be stealing a book.

Then it’s right into April 20, no ifs, ands, ors, buts about it. We get one sorely needed funny bit with Hans and Rosa to prepare us for the grim realities of the day to follow.

A mini-catastrophe almost occurs when Hans can’t find the family’s Nazi flag, which serves just to show just how dangerous it was living in Nazi Germany. After all, here in America it’s considered anti-patriotic if you don’t trash the President twice before breakfast, but the fact that such unswerving obedience was required from all citizens suggests even some of the supporters may have harbored resentment toward Hitler’s government.

And it only gets worse. Remember what I said about Zusak being too impersonal in writing because Hans, Jr. and Trudy’s presence wasn’t a big deal at Christmas? Well, they’re back now, and he writes, “Now seems like a good time to introduce them a little more comprehensively

and proceeds with 2 typical Zusak-esque unorthodox descriptions that note their similarities to their parents.

However, it then becomes clear that I was more astute in my perception of Zusak’s foreshadowing that time around:

*** A SHORT HISTORY OF ***
HANS HUBERMANN VS. HIS SON
The young man was a Nazi; his father was not. In the opinion of Hans Junior, his father was part of an old, decrepit Germany – one that allowed everyone else to take it for the proverbial ride while its own people suffered. As a teenager, he was aware that his father had been called “Der Juden Maler” – the Jew painter – for painting Jewish houses. Then came an incident I’ll fully present to you soon enough – the day Hans blew it, on the verge of joining the party. Everyone knew you weren’t supposed to paint over slurs written on a Jewish shop front. Such behavior was bad for Germany, and it was bad for the transgressor.

Hans is, notably, however, unwilling to actually say that he doesn’t support the Nazi Party. He tries to remain neutral about his feelings, but his son confronts him and insults him for not realizing what good Hitler is doing for the country, before storming out of the house in fury.

Children have a tendency to rebel against their parents, seeing them as stuck in the past, often deliberately doing the opposite of what they would. My grandfather became a Democrat, unlike his devout Republican father, then his son became a Libertarian. I don’t think these convictions were necessarily acts of targeted disapproval, but there is still the attempt to distance one from your parents’ generation. And what’s amazing is that Zusak portrays the exchange at that level. Rather than demonizing him, he comes off as a person one can relate to. The situation is played out through the lens of the time, and no real effort is even made to make us see this through the perspective of the present, though Zusak knows his 21st-century readers will naturally be discomfited.

It also goes to show how people love judging others, to the extent that it is probably considered more PC and intelligent in 2014 to say “I judge people by their politics” than the opposite.

I have been in a situation where droves of people have supported this very statement and my opposite opinion has received no defenders. It is easy to see why this is, for at face value one’s politics are a good way of judging who they are. But in practice one is likely to just end up being arrogant and hateful towards people because you do not understand why they believe what they believe.

There are many people I love who hold political opinions I hate, find idiotic or repulsive and cannot agree with, and only get past this by forcibly repressing the urge to disagree with them.

Once when I was at my local bookstore a few years ago, a man was being mocked for buying a Glenn Beck book, to the point that he growled “Shut up, it’s not for me” and when I turned around he was gone and the clerk was calling over an equally incredulous and amused co-worker to report the sale of another Beck volume. “Good God, seriously? Another GLENN BECK book!?” When I reported this incident to my staunch Democrat aunt, she was thoroughly disgusted and appalled to the point she insisted the customer must have been a close friend or they wouldn’t have dared act that way.

Similarly I feel the Christian religion causes a great deal of problems and pain for people, but I hold nothing against individual Christians, because people are largely the product of their upbringing more than anything else, and I do not feel it is my place to guess as to why they hold their beliefs. Those clerks knew nothing of why the man was buying a Beck novel, just as I have been insulted for defending my father for being a Libertarian, even though I did this more due to being raised by him rather than any measure of my own intelligence, or even proof positive that I necessarily held said beliefs, as I in fact disagree with several! Similarly, many Libertarians are ridiculed under the belief they are Rand followers, but Ayn herself hated Libertarianism and to the best of my knowledge dear old Dad owns not a thing with her name on it.

This illustrates the failings of the “I judge people by their politics” school of thought very well, I believe. It is an easy snark to astonish and discombobulate an opponent and provides little potential for the growth of empathy, constructive debate, and rational thinking in human beings.

I fully understand why people can be so hostile in these situations, of course, because it is a passionate area for most people and in the modern age I would find Hans, Jr. repugnant if he was a neo-Nazi still, for this is a basically indefensible school of thought in 2014. I don’t know what I would think of a Communist or Socialist if I met them. I might attempt to understand why they believe what they believe, though I would probably end up just disliking them a lot as human beings as a result.

I realize I’ve gone on for quite a while on this tangent, but that’s simply a measure of what a lofty topic Zusak was willing to bring up. And here is another interesting thought he introduces:

For a while, he remained silently at the table after the eating was finished. Was he really a coward, as his son had so brutally pointed out? Certainly, in World War I, he considered himself one. He attributed his survival to it. But then, is there cowardice in the acknowledgment of fear? Is there cowardice in being glad that you lived?
His thoughts crisscrossed the table as he stared into it.

This is really very heavy thinking, and many people won’t go that far to consider it. I well remember my sister calling me a coward when I told her I do not give into peer pressure (this was a bald-faced lie, I’ll give her that), but all too often those who call themselves brave are in fact fool-hardy idiots. Snarking a police officer or a mugger, for instance, might be brave, but it can also get you into a lot of trouble. When I was about 15 years old, I was at the park one night when I spied a dangerous-looking person who appeared to be a gang member on the verge of intimidating me. I turned tail and ran home. This may not have been brave, but it ensured no harm came to me, if I was not at risk of actual physical injury.

So I am not ashamed to admit I have been a coward at times. Many people are prone to putting their honor before their reason. It is not a coincidence that people who call themselves brave often hang out in gangs and get killed or violently assaulted, while those of us who live honest and peaceful existences retire at a healthy old age. So yes, I feel absolutely no shame in admitting that I am a coward, in many respects.

Well, anyway, Hans takes Liesel off to the BDM headquarters, from where she will march to the town square in her Hitler Youth uniform. Death closes by prepping us for the long-awaited event to come that serves to justify the book’s title:

Speeches would be made.
A fire would be lit.
A book would be stolen.

You might have noticed he closed the previous chapter with a similar prepping, and I think if I had already read the book this kind of style would do well to make me excited for my favorite parts to come. Similarly I don’t know how much has changed about the impersonality of Zusak’s writing, but I’m getting the feeling now that that may be done deliberately to show Death’s stiff relation of events described in Liesel’s diary. It’s also interesting that there are few wasted words. The writing flows very neatly.

100 PERCENT PURE GERMAN SWEAT

Fittingly, the next chapter opens by throwing us right into the march to the town square. Judging by this and the chapter titles, it’s obvious these remaining three chapters will be comprised of the same basic event.

Many people may be intimidated by this book due to its length (88 chapters and 548 pages) but most of the chapters are actually very short and the book seems designed to be an easy read. In fact, if I wasn’t reading the book in this manner for the blog, I’d probably be able to get through it very quickly.

And now that we are so close to the event he has spent so much time building up to, Zusak appropriately enough includes foreshadowing of the next things to come in the story:

When Rudy’s group came into the square and was instructed to halt, there was a disprecancy. Tommy Müller. The rest of the regiment stopped marching and Tommy plowed directly into the boy in front of him.
“Dummkopf!” the boy spat before turning around.
“I’m sorry,” said Tommy, arms held apologetically out. His face tripped over itself. “I couldn’t hear.” It was only a small moment, but it was also a preview of troubles to come. For Tommy. For Rudy.

I don’t know exactly what kinds of “troubles” these will be exactly. A deviation from what is expected of a proper German is going to get Rudy and Tommy in trouble, I suppose?

But it will have to become more than that, or be something that affects everyone. Because there’s obviously going to be a conflict in the story. We haven’t gotten there yet, but it’s clear the book can’t remain slice-of-life the whole way through. From what we know already, it will involve a Jewish fist fighter and something or someone related to Hans’ past, at the very least.

So this is probably a good point to bring out the check list again. I think Hans, Jr.’s confrontation with his father qualifies as excitement, so…

  1. much excitement
  2. much beautiful evil
  3. one blood-soaked ankle
  4. and a slap from a trusted hand
  5. Liesel Meminger attain(s) her second success story

At the moment, Liesel’s group splits up, which does not bode well as Liesel is primed to run into trouble by herself.

The fire starts, and there is a very vivid description of it in Zusak/Death’s unique style. We then get a much-needed insight into how exactly Liesel feels about all this:

Although something inside told her that this was a crime-after all, her three books were the most precious items she owned-she was compelled to see the thing lit. She couldn’t help it. I guess humans like to watch a little destruction. Sand castles, houses of cards, that’s where they begin. Their great skill is their capacity to escalate.

I remember a book on literature that I was assigned for school in the past made the point that in a movie, you usually have to guess how the characters feel, from their dialogue, actions, and facial expressions. Most of the time, you aren’t given an insight into their personal thoughts. I have heard a favorite critic of mine cite this as a reason why The Hunger Games film could never be as good as the book: because so much of the book is filtered through and revolves around Katniss’s individual perspective.

So I’m glad to see Zusak take advantage of this opportunity for a book, and then he uses some very effective and well-written personification writing:

The thought of missing it was eased when she found a gap in the bodies and was able to see the mound of guilt, still intact. It was prodded and splashed, even spat on. It reminded her of an unpopular child, forlorn and bewildered, powerless to alter its fate. No one liked it. Head down. Hands in pockets. Forever. Amen.

Liesel is troubled by the fact that she cannot find Rudy, but then the speaker begins his patriotic address for the occasion, and it brings out some interesting feelings in Liesel:

He was performing now what is called a Schreierei-a consummate exhibition of passionate shouting-warning the crowd to be watchful, to be vigilant, to seek out and destroy the evil machinations plotting to infect the motherland with its deplorable ways. “The immoral! The Kommunisten!” That word again. That old word. Dark rooms. Suit-wearing men.

My grandmother and aunt urged me not to read the Harry Potter books for many years due to how disturbing they found certain parts. And indeed, when I eventually did, there were parts that left me chilled to the bone when I finished a chapter. I’ve become much less sensitive since then, but this writing is absolutely stunning and spine-chilling in its sheer horror and shock, as Liesel begins to realize what happened to her mother, and the realities and implications of their involvement in the Communist party that she never understood, through her deepest memories that suggest it is likely Liesel’s father was taken away and killed so long ago she has no memory of him.

In front of her, a head with parted blond hair and pigtails sat absolutely still on its shoulders. Staring into it, Liesel revisited those dark rooms of her past and her mother answering questions made up of one word.

She saw it all so clearly.

Her starving mother, her missing father. Kommunisten.

Her dead brother.

The writing is amazingly effective, as this is the moment, perhaps the most important point in the book so far, where Liesel truly wakes up to what is happening right before her very eyes. And there will be no more happy daydreams about the Führer. No more Nazi-loving Liesel Meminger. Only recognition of the sheer beautiful evil that resides all around her.

Voices climbed over shoulders and the smell of pure German sweat struggled at first, then poured out. It rounded corner after corner, till they were all swimming in it. The words, the sweat. And smiling. Let’s not forget the smiling.

Many jocular comments followed, as did another onslaught of “heil Hitlering.” You know, it actually makes me wonder if anyone ever lost an eye or injured a hand or wrist with all of that. You’d only need to be facing the wrong way at the wrong time or stand marginally too close to another person. Perhaps people did get injured. Personally, I can only tell you that no one died from it, or at least, not physically.

The Time review excerpt on the back cover describes this writing a lot better than I ever could. “Zusak doesn’t sugarcoat anything, but he makes his ostensibly gloomy subject bearable the same way Kurt Vonnegut did in Slaughterhouse Five: with grim, darkly consoling humor.”

I have never read Slaughterhouse Five (in fact, I’m only familiar with Vonnegut from criticisms of him on Cracked.com), but this makes me want to check it out. The next bit confuses me, though:

There was, of course, the matter of forty million people I picked up by the time the whole thing was finished, but that’s getting all metaphoric. Allow me to return us to the fire. 

At first, I thought this referred to literally the number of people, Jews, Nazis, Hitler himself, that met horrible deaths in the years following this. But I’m not sure if this qualifies as metaphoric. And it’s not like it was really this book-burning that set off the Holocaust. Perhaps it refers to the number of followers Hitler received as a result of this patriotic event. They, perhaps, in a way, became Death’s minions, through the genocidal years to come. I’m not sure.

The book then takes another interesting turn, however:

In her attempt to escape, a voice found her.

“Liesel!”

It made its way through and she recognized it. It was not Rudy, but she knew that voice.

She twisted free and found the face attached to it. Oh, no. Ludwig Schmeikl.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

But it doesn’t go quite the way you would expect:

He did not, as she expected, sneer or joke or make any conversation at all. All he was able to do was pull her toward him and motion to his ankle. It had been crushed among the excitement and was bleeding dark and ominous through his sock. His face wore a helpless expression beneath his tangled blond hair. An animal. Not a deer in lights. Nothing so typical or specific. He was just an animal, hurt among the melee of its own kind, soon to be trampled by it.

So she takes pity on him and they sit together to rest by the church steps. They remember the beating episode of just 5 months past, but somehow it seems like a lifetime ago. It was the main conflict in Liesel’s life that closed off the first part of the book, but somehow just 6 chapters later it has become irrelevant and childish, with the horrible realities that have come to play. They both apologize for the incident, then sit silently having realized they are both human beings adrift in a sea of chaos, and need all the help and support they can to survive amid the madness their world has become.

The blood enlarged on Ludwig Schmeikl’s ankle.

A single word leaned against the girl.

To their left, flames and burning books were cheered like heroes.

Absolutely beautiful.

  1. much excitement
  2. much beautiful evil
  3. one blood-soaked ankle
  4. and a slap from a trusted hand
  5. Liesel Meminger attain(s) her second success story

THE GATES OF THIEVERY

This chapter opens in an appropriately somber fashion. Death actually writes, “Everything was sad,” in fact. There is some very solemn reflection on the horrible deed that has been done:

Now there was nothing but cleaning up, and soon, no one would even imagine it had happened.

But you could smell it.

Perhaps this symbolizes the entire world after World War II, or post-Nazi Germany. I’m not sure.

Hans comes to pick up Liesel, then, and the writing becomes very slow and deliberately paced as he can tell Liesel is unhappy. Zusak portrays the realization that has come to her very succinctly and well in his own unique fashion:

*** A SMALL ADDITION ***

The word communist + a large bonfire + a collection of dead letters + the suffering of her mother + the death of her brother = the Führer

For most of the book, Liesel has been unaware of the world around her, and Hans does not seem to want to break her blissful ignorance, but the point at which he can no longer hide the reality of their situation from her any longer is perfectly pitched.

“Did the Führer take her away?”

The question surprised them both, and it forced Papa to stand up. He looked at the brown-shirted men taking to the pile of ash with shovels. He could hear them hacking into it. Another lie was growing in his mouth, but he found it impossible to let it out. He said, “I think he might have, yes.”

And Liesel leaves Hans hate with no way to deny the reality of her new worldview, one she had already realized before he said a word to her.

“I hate the Führer,” she said. “I hate him.”

If I have exaggerated my love for him, it is only because Hans has been consistently portrayed as the most sympathetic and likable character in the book. Death even told us he was one of the 10% of German citizens who didn’t support Hitler, but he has nevertheless been portrayed realistically, in his refusal to come out and say what Liesel just has. When his son confronted him, he would not disown the Nazi Party altogether and Zusak did hint he would not embrace Hitler for more personal reasons than was being revealed at the moment, so even now we don’t really have a clear idea.

And despite being a good person, he doesn’t have the benefit of hindsight, so because of all this it is unclear whether his beliefs are so extreme as Liesel’s.

This is the moment where we get a good idea of what kind of person Hans really is, through his reaction, and Zusak knows this. He knows the reader is immensely interested in Hans’ reaction to this statement, and he follows up accordingly in his writing:

And Hans Hubermann?

What did he do?

What did he say?

Did he bend down and embrace his foster daughter, as he wanted to? Did he tell her that he was sorry for what was happening to her, to her mother, for what had happened to her brother?

Not exactly.

He then throws the answer at us, with no remorse:

He slapped Liesel Meminger squarely in the face.

“Don’t ever say that!” His voice was quiet, but sharp.

This is shocking to read, and even to copy down here. The book was published in 2005, and every reader would have applauded Liesel if they were in Hans’ position. It is horrifying to read of Hans reacting like this, but Zusak did cushion the blow beforehand with the express statement that he WANTED TO word-for-word “bend down and embrace his foster daughter“, and he shows us now that there is more going on than we realize:
It would be easy to say that he was just a tall man sitting poor-postured and shattered on some church steps, but he wasn’t. At the time, Liesel had no idea that her foster father, Hans Hubermann, was contemplating one of the most dangerous dilemmas a German citizen could face. Not only that, he’d been facing it for close to a year.

Close to a year ago would be around May 1939, and if one goes back to The Other Side of Sandpaper, which took place in late May 1939, a Nazi Parade on Munich Street was described, during which Hans, passively sitting by, “wore a face with the shades pulled down“. Something is going on that we are not aware of, but we do know what’s going on in his mind for the most part at this moment. These people are living in Germany in 1940, and you could not have anti-Hitler, anti-Nazi feelings back then, and Hans only acted the way he did out of this unpleasant reality. Liesel cannot go around talking like this, and Hans explains to her how it is:

“You can say that in our house,” he said, looking gravely at Liesel’s cheek. “But you never say it on the street, at school, at the BDM, never!” He stood in front of her and lifted her by the triceps. He shook her. “Do you hear me?”

With her eyes trapped wide open, Liesel nodded her compliance.

Horrible to imagine in 2014, but that’s as good as it gets in this time.

But you know WHAT OTHER TIME IT IS? TIME FOR MORE FORESHADOWING:

It was, in fact, a rehearsal for a future lecture, when all of Hans Hubermann’s worst fears arrived on Himmel Street later that year, in the early hours of a November morning.

In fact, we haven’t actually gotten much more information, as this was described in further detail back in The Smell of Friendship. I quoted the passage in full there, so I’ll just recap here:

  1. These worst fears involve Hans’ accordion.
  2. They involve an individual, in specific, arriving with “ruffled shoulders and a shivering jacket“.
  3. Said individual will bring “a suitcase, a book, and two questions“.

I get spoiled for books/movies quite frequently, and in these cases I will try to get myself in the mindset of not knowing those things yet, but no matter how hard I try I always arrive with the feeling I knew the story would get to this point, and usually I don’t, oddly enough, feel hampered by this. What’s interesting is that Zusak is manufacturing this feeling deliberately. He wrote about how things only made sense for Liesel “when all the stories came together… A story. Story after story. Story within story.

What point in the story are we at now? Well, let’s bring out that check-list:

  1. much excitement
  2. much beautiful evil
  3. one blood-soaked ankle
  4. and a slap from a trusted hand
  5. Liesel Meminger attain(s) her second success story

So, you, me, we all know what’s up next!

After another ten minutes, the gates of thievery would open just a crack, and Liesel Meminger would widen them a little further and squeeze through. 

*** TWO QUESTIONS ***

Would the gates shut behind her?

Or would they have the goodwill to let her back out?

Considering the title of this book, I think the answer is pretty clear. And I love that I know what is going to happen in the next chapter, and that I am actually supposed to! But I still feel awkward about the real time blogging for Part One’s closing chapter, so I think we should do a retrospect recap for the finale this time around.

Actually.

Forget the ten minutes.

The gates open now.

And that’s my cue to say:

ALL RIGHT WE ARE DOING THIS LIVE.

BOOK OF FIRE

All right, so the chapter does not thrust us right into the book-stealing action. Night wears on and Liesel and Hans head home. And it is a measure of Zusak’s writing skills that I was immediately alarmed by this:
To get out of the square, they would walk past the bonfire site and through a small side road onto Munich Street. They didn’t make it that far.

But it’s only a random carpenter named Wolfgang Edel who starts a conversation with Hans. We’ve never seen him before, and he only serves to provide a distraction for Liesel to wander off.

So the gates may have already opened, but it’s exactly one page before an abrupt transition to:

Liesel wandered toward the mountain of ash.

I remember Death saying there were many factors in Liesel’s desire to steal the second book, and it seemed like it would be due to her anger at the Nazi Party and her growing love for books. But what’s rather strange and difficult to figure out is what’s drawing her in to the mound in the first place:

It sat like a magnet, like a freak. Irresistible to the eyes, similar to the road of yellow stars.

The mood is very eerie and tense as Liesel keeps making her way closer, drawn on like Aurora to the spinning-wheel in Sleeping Beauty.

Pass auf, Kind,” a uniform said to her at one point. “Look out, child,” as he shoveled some more ash onto a cart.

Closer to the town hall, under a light, some shadows stood and talked, most likely exulting in the success of the fire. From Liesel’s position, their voices were only sounds. Not words at all.

But what are they saying? Liesel has been noticed already. Are they discussing locating Hans to return Liesel to him? Is she going to get seen taking the books?

But somehow she manages to stay there for a few minutes simply watching, and Hans must be getting worried by now.

They came back and forth from a truck, and after three return trips, when the heap was reduced near the bottom, a small section of living material slipped from inside the ash.

*** THE MATERIAL ***

Half a red flag, two posters advertising a Jewish poet,

three books, and a wooden sign with something written

on it in Hebrew

Obviously Semitic in nature, so it’s easy to see why they were burned, but how did they survive the fire?

Perhaps they were damp. Perhaps the fire didn’t burn long enough to fully reach the depth where they sat.

Okay. But, wait… THREE books? SO WHY DID LIESEL GET ONLY ONE?!!!

“Come on,” said one of them. “Hurry up, will you, I’m starving.”

They moved toward the truck.

He’s already trying to lull us into a sense of security, but I’m not buying it: Why is Liesel not about to get all three books?

The heat was still strong enough to warm her when she stood at the foot of the ash heap. When she reached her hand in, she was bitten, but on the second attempt, she made sure she was fast enough.

This is so tense. I know she succeeds at least partially, I know that she’ll be alive in 1943, I know there are four hundred and sixteen pages left, yet I’m still on the edge of my seat AGAIN.

She latched onto the closest of the books. It was hot, but it was also wet, burned only at the edges, but otherwise unhurt.

It was blue.

Death mentioned a lot of red writing and a red picture on “The Shoulder Shrug”, but the first detail he mentioned of it was that it was blue. So she’s got it now, right? How does the chapter not simply end here?

Red letters were pressed into those fibers. The only word Liesel had time to read was Shoulder. There wasn’t enough time for the rest…

All right, so mission accomplished! That’s that. What’s left?

, and there was a problem. The smoke.

This doesn’t refer to smoke inhalation, does it? Because Death mentioned “it smoked in her hands…. it lit her ribs.” So I’m sorry, I’m not feeling the big tension here.

There were fourteen steps till the voice.

It propped itself up behind her.

“Hey!”

That was when she nearly ran back and tossed the book onto the mound, but she was unable. The only movement at her disposal was the act of turning.

All right, this is disconcerting. Who is it?

“There are some things here that didn’t burn!” It was one of the cleanup men. He was not facing the girl, but rather, the people standing by the town hall.

So all she has to do is hide the book and get out of there.

We do get some hinting at the future of just how famous Liesel will become for her book thievery, but as it is I’m sorry to be negative, but no, this chapter didn’t have as much tension as it could have because of how much was given away beforehand. She gets back to Hans and Wolfgang Edel, and then, well, we get some more suspense:

Immediately, when the smile shrank from her lips, she could feel something else. Or more to the point, someone else. There was no mistaking the watched feeling. It was all over her, and it was confirmed when she dared to face the shadows over at the town hall. To the side of the collection of silhouettes, another one stood, a few meters removed, and Liesel realized two things.

*** A FEW SMALL PIECES ***

OF RECOGNITION

1. The shadow’s identity and

2. The fact that it had seen everything

All right, I don’t know how to feel anymore. I’m constantly being manipulated and we get few details of this person, but Liesel is only irritated and given Death mentioned Rudy being involved in Liesel’s thievery to come, I’m guessing it’s just him.

“What’s wrong?” Papa asked.

“Nothing.”

Quite a few things, however, were most definitely wrong:

Smoke was rising out of Liesel’s collar.

A necklace of sweat had formed around her throat.

Beneath her shirt, a book was eating her up.

Well, that’s it! I can’t say it was as strong a finish as the last part, but it was at least focused well on getting us to this point and it does solidify the title. The realities of the war are coming into play, Liesel has reached the turning point in her character now, and I am eager to see what lies ahead because I don’t really know what’s next, actually. It’ll be interesting to read the 8 parts to come.

But for now… bye.

Before I start the review as proper, there’s something I have to talk about in regards to the last post:

This blog is designed with a specific goal in mind. Apart from the obvious goal of reviewing The Book Thief, I am also striving to combine critical analysis with the joy of reading. At the end of my previous review, I feel it is safe to say that I veered straight off the course of critical analysis in more ways than one.

I have tried to avoid this, at least in these reviews, but the events in the last chapter struck home too hard for me so combined with Zusak’s vivid writing I had such a strong emotional reaction that when I was done I feared it was not even publishable. I considered editing the entire thing in fact for fear I would be labeled an immature spaz or an attention whore. But I decided this would be dishonest in portraying my reaction. So I hope you read it knowing why I wrote it the way that I did and know I will try my best to be analytical and professional from here on out without letting the story affect me to the point of childishness that I regressed to the way that it did.

To start off, Part Two is titled “the shoulder shrug“, perhaps Death and humanity at large’s answer as to why such senseless cruelty and mass death was taking place all over the world during this time.

The subtitle is

featuring:
a girl made of darkness – the joy of cigarettes – a town walker – some dead letters – hitler’s birthday – 100 percent pure german sweat – the gates of thievery – and a book of fire

This makes it fairly easy to figure out what is likely to come:

I mean, “a girl made of darkness” – that’s obviously Liesel and we damn well know why.

The second, third, and fourth subtitles are very confusing, however. Perhaps the second refers to Liesel’s only solace being her bond with Hans or Hans’ only solace being his cigarettes in the terrible war years that he’s already lived and fought through once. I don’t know what to make of the latter two, though.

It’s pretty easy to figure out what the rest mean, though: something will happen at Hitler’s birthday, the Nazis will march, there will probably be some sort of severe anti-Jewish acts, and then Liesel will steal the second book.

A GIRL MADE OF DARKNESS

But even if we didn’t know where Part Two would be taking us, even if some reader couldn’t make heads or tails of the subtitle, Zusak spells out where it will end at the very beginning of this chapter, which serves basically as a prologue for the part to come, much like the 4 chapters that introduced the whole book.

*** SOME STATISTICAL INFORMATION ***
First stolen book: January 13, 1939
Second stolen book: April 20, 1940
Duration between said stolen books: 463 days

I have a deep-seated love for history, timeline chronology and specific dates, so I feel like starting off the first chapter like this is something put here specifically for me.

And it’s an enjoyable way of showing us how long we have to wait for this, for the purpose obviously is to prep us for said event, as he makes sure to flagrantly spell out for us right here:

The problem, however, is this:
This is no time to be flippant.
It’s no time to be half watching, turning around, or checking the stove-because when the book thief stole her second book, not only were there many factors involved in her hunger to do so, but the act of stealing it triggered the crux of what was to come.

Translation: THIS IS REALLY REALLY SERIOUS BUSINESS, HAVE YOU GOT THAT? HAVE YOU GOT THAT? NO?!!!!

But the problem is this. Zusak’s foreshadowing often feels more like blatantly spoiling what’s to come. In fact, there’s so much of it that it feels like we’ve already read these events rather than being teased for them to come.

It would provide her with a venue for continued book thievery. It would inspire Hans Hubermann to come up with a plan to help the Jewish fist fighter.

You see, he gives us so much information that it honestly feels like I’ve skipped several chapters ahead. In fact, I actually wonder if the book would make just as much sense if I just skipped to Part 3 or Part 6, even.

I will grant that he does close this segment with a rather poetic and well-written thought:

And it would show me, once again, that one opportunity leads directly to another, just as risk leads to more risk, life to more life, and death to more death.

But then he keeps giving us just so many facts, one after the other. With the Rudy Steiner Incident, he told us so much ahead of time we didn’t really need to see it, except for Rudy’s conversation with his father in the end.

In regards to what I presume is going to be the big climax to this part, he’s already told us Liesel rescued the second book from a fire, and now he tells us that it was a book burning held by the Nazis, tells us what the book is and what it looks like, and tells us how Liesel felt about stealing it afterwards, why she did it in the first place, and tells us when it happened.

However, he does in the process give us an interesting perspective by Death about the Germans’ frequent arsons, which does well at imagining what someone unaccustomed to human culture might think of it.

And maybe I shouldn’t be harsh without knowing the bigger picture. It’s just that I like to be surprised, and maybe I should focus on this aspect of his writing again once I have the full picture.

He does seem to be doing everything I’ve complained about on purpose, honestly, and may even want me to have the reaction I had. There is some promising foreshadowing here:

At the end of an afternoon that had contained much excitement, much beautiful evil, one blood-soaked ankle, and a slap from a trusted hand, Liesel Meminger attained her second success story.

You see, the reason why this foreshadowing is so well done is because he’s teasing us with elements that don’t make sense yet, but intrigue us, and make us eager to read to see how they all pop into place with what we’ve been told so far. So maybe he’s not doing as bad a job as I thought.

Oh, and I love this. Liesel is just angry in general now, quite understandably so, and Death has the audacity to say this:

The question, of course, should be why?
What was there to be angry about?
What had happened in the past four or five months to culminate in such a feeling?

It might be more fitting to ask why she shouldn’t be “a girl made of darkness”.

Like most misery, it started with apparent happiness.

Yes, we get it! You gave Liesel the worst experience ever, made us expect the worst for her, then gave her a bundle of happiness out of nowhere for an uninterrupted 8 months, just to ruin it again with the worst things ever! For crying out loud, STOP BEING SUCH A SADIST.

THE JOY OF CIGARETTES

Now we get the answer as to why Liesel being “a girl made of darkness” was a strange thing by April 20, 1940.

One-by-one, in an almost poetic fashion, Zusak checks off all the problems in her life (except for missing Werner and her mother) and ends with the following summing-up:

All of this resulted in at least some form of contentment and would soon be built upon to approach the concept of Being Happy.

It’s easy to relate to such beautiful writing, though in passages like this, Zusak comes off a bit too warm and human for the voice of Death:

She loved and hated her best friend, Rudy Steiner, which was perfectly normal.

And seriously, I can’t believe that HE’S DOING IT AGAIN HE’S DOING IT AGAIN! I swear, it’s like he knows I’m here reviewing this book! I tell him to stop being a sadist and he pretends to go along with it in such a blatantly sarcastic tone.

*** THE KEYS TO HAPPINESS ***

1. Finishing The Grave Digger’s Handbook.

2. Escaping the ire of Sister Maria.

3. Receiving two books for Christmas.

I hope that these goals will be reached. Even if the happiness will be abruptly smashed right after that, I’m still going to keep my check list handy and cheer at their fulfillment.

December 17.
She remembered the date well, as it was exactly a week before Christmas.

So either there’s no hope at all or the race will be starting, for the timer has been set.

As usual, her nightly nightmare interrupted her sleep and she was woken by Hans Hubermann. His hand held the sweaty fabric of her pajamas. “The train?” he whispered.
Liesel confirmed. “The train.”

The book proceeds like a simple check-off list.

When the book closed, they shared a sideways glance. Papa spoke.
“We made it, huh?”
Liesel, half-wrapped in blanket, studied the black book in her hands and its silver lettering. She nodded, dry-mouthed and early-morning hungry. It was one of those moments of perfect tiredness, of having conquered not only the work at hand, but the night who had blocked the way.

  • Finishing The Grave Digger’s Handbook.
  • Escaping the ire of Sister Maria.
  • Receiving two books for Christmas.

And now we get something interesting:

One afternoon, she was tempted to steal a book from the class bookshelf, but frankly, the prospect of another corridor Watschen at the hands of Sister Maria was a powerful enough deterrent. On top of that, there was actually no real desire in her to take the books from school. It was most likely the intensity of her November failure that caused this lack of interest, but Liesel wasn’t sure. She only knew that it was there.

Death seemed to make it clear Liesel stole her second book due to anger likely at the Nazi Party, so it seems strange that her urge to steal books is suddenly showing itself here. I mean, I get that it’s to provide additional motivation for taking the second book in May, and she wants to practice reading, but she didn’t show much interest in stealing books before (except for Death’s foreshadowing in the future), so pointing it out as a lack of interest now seems odd.

Also, Liesel comes off a tad too unsympathetic here:

As winter set in, she was no longer a victim of Sister Maria’s frustrations, preferring to watch as others were marched out to the corridor and given their just rewards. The sound of another student struggling in the hallway was not particularly enjoyable, but the fact that it was someone else was, if not a true comfort, a relief.

This lack of empathy from people bothers me so much, and that was what triggered Liesel’s violent anger in the first place. So I can’t let this go by without comment. I mean, Liesel, it isn’t someone else! Just because it is not physically you in there this time doesn’t matter. You are not somehow magically more important than those other kids.

But, oh, whatever:

  • Finishing The Grave Digger’s Handbook.
  • Escaping the ire of Sister Maria.
  • Receiving two books for Christmas.

And we cut right to Christmas!

Knowing that the Hubermanns were essentially broke, still paying off debts and paying rent quicker than the money could come in, she was not expecting a gift of any sort.

What? I’m sorry. That came out of nowhere. With all the stuff Death tells us that hasn’t happened yet, why didn’t we ever know about the Hubermanns’ financial problems before? It seems so strange to have it be mentioned here for the first time.

Perhaps only some better food.

Well, aw, so much for that check list, anyway.

To her surprise, on Christmas Eve, after sitting in church at midnight with Mama, Papa, Hans Junior, and Trudy, she came home to find something wrapped in newspaper under the Christmas tree.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Yay!…… Wait, Hans, Jr. and Trudy are there? That’s strange. Why don’t we get more attention paid to them? I have to say, Zusak is much too impersonal at times.

We do get this, though:

Unfurling the paper, she unwrapped two small books.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Finishing The Grave Digger’s Handbook.
  • Escaping the ire of Sister Maria.
  • Receiving two books for Christmas.

HAPPY HAPPY! LIESEL HAS UNLOCKED ALL THREE OF THE KEYS OF HAPPINESS! I NEVER THOUGHT IT WOULD HAPPEN BUT IT DID IT DID. YAAAAAAY! 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

They are completely fictional books written by fictional authors, by the way: Faust the Dog by Mattheus Ottleberg and The Lighthouse by Ingrid Rippinstein.

And befitting Zusak’s style of giving us way too much information, Liesel reads the former 13 times and the latter a mere 9, and I have to say wow. Excluding picture books with no chapters when I was a child, I have never tended to re-read books at all. In fact, I think the only one I have read 13 times and probably more is Raggedy Ann & Andy and the Camel with the Wrinkled Knees. It’s also the only chapter book I’ve read anywhere near 9 times. And wow, that was embarrassing to admit.

Also, we’re being very meta here. I probably should have commented earlier, but I thought it went without saying that the reason a lot of book lovers probably love this book so much is because there is a lot of just plain celebrating the joy of books in passages like this. I don’t know if he wants this book used to teach a child to read, though, but one thing is for sure: it would definitely be just as morbid and inappropriate as The Grave Digger’s Handbook!

There’s something I probably shouldn’t ignore, though:

On Christmas Eve, she read the first twenty pages at the kitchen table while Papa and Hans Junior argued about a thing she did not understand. Something called politics.

This is the only thing that comes close to putting a damper on the happiness that’s on display here. I mean, these people, even though they’re living in Germany 74 years ago, feel so much like any family it’s easy to transplant meaningless political arguments our own family members have had over the holidays. But this is a few months into WWII, so is there really some horrible political clash between Hans and his son? Will Hans’ son later become a Nazi? It’s very easy to ignore, for the reasons I stated, but I find myself worrying here. (Also I knew perfectly well what politics were when I was ten years old. I had longwinded conversations with my father about the presidential election when I was eight, for that matter.)

But wait! One more thing: How did the Hubermanns manage to pay for the books, if they are so poor? Well, in the midst of some really glaring and kind of laughable visual analogies, we figure out and get our explanation for the very strange chapter title:

“That Saukerl,” she said. “You know what he did? He rolled up all of his filthy cigarettes, went to the market when it was in town, and traded them with some gypsy.”

“Eight cigarettes per book.” Papa shoved one to his mouth, in triumph. He lit up and took in the smoke. “Praise the Lord for cigarettes, huh, Mama?”

I’d like to clarify that I am in fact a 100% heterosexual male, and if Hans Hubermann were to show up at my door in any given moment in time I would break Ohio law to marry him in a heartbeat. Hell, even Rosa’s complaining doesn’t destroy the beautiful and flawless happiness we have on display here. She’s lovable in her own way as we’ve become endeared to her, and Hans puts a stop to it anyway. Of course he does.

It appeared that there was great joy in cigarettes, and it was a happy time in the Hubermann household.

So all is well at the end of this chapter. I can close the book now with a feeling of complete contentment and peace in the world. Things are perfect and they are going to stay that way forever.

Oh, wait. There’s one more sentence. Huh. Well, that’s odd.

It ended a few weeks later.

I literally just sat staring at these six words for quite some time, unwilling to believe my mind hadn’t made it up, and then when it proved tangible I just cracked up laughing. I mean, he’s here. Markus Zusak likes to switch through time just like Death, and while he was reading the book he kept looking in to see how I would react carefully watching every word I type, and then he constructed the whole book around emotionally manipulating me and responding to everything I say.

Well, Markus, my man, more than one consecutive week of flawless happiness is more than I ever expected out of you, so I will accept it gladly. Tank you veddy much.

THE TOWN WALKER

But he wastes no time in throwing us into the sadness:

The rot started with the washing and it rapidly increased.

There are so many examples of obvious foreshadowing in the book that I’ve probably given Zusak short-shrift. I’ve started to get the impression that a lot of it was done to distract from the more subtle foreshadowing. I mean, remember when I said that all the material relating to Rosa and Liesel delivering washing around town was pointless and you could cut out that entire chapter? Well, now Zusak’s really decided to taunt me and make me feel stupid for that assumption:

When Liesel accompanied Rosa Hubermann on her deliveries across Molching, one of her customers, Ernst Vogel, informed them that he could no longer afford to have his washing and ironing done. “The times,” he excused himself, “what can I say? They’re getting harder. The war’s making things tight.” He looked at the girl. “I’m sure you get an allowance for keeping the little one, don’t you?”

This happened to me with Rowling a few times, too, but it’s interesting to deal with an author who constantly circumvents and challenges your critiques. I mean, this isn’t the ideal method of reviewing, since I’m not getting the full picture. I may think I’ve got it all figured out by how much Zusak teases us with what’s to come, but really I don’t know what lies ahead. And it doesn’t help that I don’t have a very thorough knowledge of World War II. So I don’t really know how it affected the people in Germany. Jews, sure, the people being bombed in London, yeah. But when did things get bad for GERMANY, when did they start fighting back, to the point that Hitler supporters were inconvenienced by the war? That’s what I don’t know, so I’m actually more clueless than Zusak probably expects, honestly.

What is noteworthy is that even Rosa is shocked by this:
To Liesel’s dismay, Mama was speechless.

All she did was rant about these people, so it probably is a bad sign that she’s just horrified by the war and worried about what’s to come. I mean, the main complaints we heard from her about Vogel was that he was ugly and would scratch his hair and lick his fingers when he handed over the money, in addition to the fact that he wasted his money on alcohol and the washing (yes, she was brazen about that!), which would lead her to expect the worst when he’s stingy about money.

And she seems to be a bit too harsh on Liesel, as a result:

That night, when Liesel had a bath, Mama scrubbed her especially hard, muttering the whole time about that Vogel Saukerl and imitating him at two-minute intervals. “‘You must get an allowance for the girl. …'” She berated Liesel’s naked chest as she scrubbed away. “You’re not worth that much, Saumensch. You’re not making me rich, you know.”

Liesel sat there and took it.

It seemed like there was something lovable about her curmudgeonness before, but now as her frustration grows and she orders Liesel to start doing all the washing and lie to them about Rosa being sick to get pity, she’s just being so harsh with the poor girl who’s done nothing wrong that we can’t find any affection, and it’s kind of disturbing.

For a moment, it appeared that her foster mother would comfort her or pat her on the shoulder.

Good girl, Liesel. Good girl. Pat, pat, pat.

She did no such thing.  

Instead, Rosa Hubermann stood up, selected a wooden spoon, and held it under Liesel’s nose. It was a necessity as far as she was concerned. “When you’re out on that street, you take the bag to each place and you bring it straight home, with the money, even though it’s next to nothing. No going to Papa if he’s actually working for once. No mucking around with that little Saukerl, Rudy Steiner. Straight. Home.”

But we do get something pleasant, not only in Liesel’s one-time playful disregard for Rosa’s order on how to handle the bag. One of the things I loved about The Secret Garden was its message about the power of positive thinking, and how it was that that sold the fairy-tale like sentiment and silly mood of the story in the very true fact that whether a situation is terrible or not often depends on the extremes that we view them in. Very similarly, here, we get a very well-done, wholly deliberate contrast between the way Liesel dealt with the washing chore and looked at her employers from the way Rosa did. Back in the chapter I described as superfluous, Zusak used the narrative voice to carefully outline everything Rosa disliked about the neighbors, and now that the narrative is focused on Liesel, we get an analysis of the same things, only with Liesel finding affection and fondness in the very traits Rosa despised.

She came to like the people, too:

* The Pfaffelhürvers, inspecting the clothes and saying, ” Ja, ja, sehr gut, sehr gut.” Liesel imagined that they did everything twice.

* Gentle Helena Schmidt, handing the money over with an arthritic curl of the hand.

* The Weingartners, whose bent-whiskered cat always answered the door with them. Little Goebbels, that’s what they called him, after Hitler’s right-hand man.

* And Frau Hermann, the mayor’s wife, standing fluffy-haired and shivery in her enormous, cold-aired doorway. Always silent. Always alone. No words, not once.

Character contrast, I love you more than most things. (And that Liesel proceeds to flout the “no mucking around with Rudy Steiner” rule.)

We then get an abrupt shift, however, as Liesel and Rudy are assigned to write letters to other students in school.

Liesel’s letter from Rudy went like this:

Dear Saumensch,

Are you still as useless at soccer as you were the last time you played? I hope so. That means I can run past you again just like Jesse Owens at the Olympics. …

I like how Zusak includes comic relief like this and does not seem to keep the story from getting too dark and heavy, at least at this point.  And it’s nice to know Liesel has a good friend in the dark times that lie ahead.

It disturbs me how violent these nuns are, though:

When Sister Maria found it, she asked him a question, very amiably.

*** SISTER MARIA’S OFFER ***

“Do you feel like visiting the corridor, Mr. Steiner?”

My brother is a devout Catholic, but I find myself very wary of religions (Catholicism and Lutheranism) whose practitioners seem to enjoy beating small children for whatever excuse they can conjure. Probably just me.

At home, while completing a letter for homework, Liesel decided that writing to Rudy or some other Saukerl was actually ridiculous. It meant nothing. As she wrote in the basement, she spoke over to Papa, who was repainting the wall again.

“Would I be able to write a letter to Mama?”

A pause.

“What do you want to write a  letter to her for? You have to put up with her every day.” Papa was schmunzeling-a sly smile. “Isn’t that bad enough?”

“Not that mama.” She swallowed.

Well, this is an interesting turn of events. I’m glad the narrative turned to this point, because I was wondering about Liesel’s mother. It’s bad enough she doesn’t know anything about where her own father is. I would like to get an update on her mother’s location.

“Frau Heinrich.”

“That’s right. Send it to her. Maybe she can send it on to your mother.” Even at the time, he sounded unconvincing, as if he wasn’t telling Liesel something. Word of her mother had also been tightlipped on Frau Heinrich’s brief visits.

Oh, God, no. Why? Why can we not have nice things? This is terrible, isn’t it?

It took three hours and six drafts to perfect the letter, telling her mother all about Molching, her papa and his accordion, the strange but true ways of Rudy Steiner, and the exploits of Rosa Hubermann. She also explained how proud she was that she could now read and write a little.

Zusak, why must you break my heart like this? The poor girl. I can’t imagine having the patience to write six drafts of a letter to anyone now, let alone back when I was only just learning to read. Talking to her mother means so much to her.

But she doesn’t even get peaceful dreams, because this is what she overhears in bed:
“What’s she doing writing to her mother?” Mama was saying. Her voice was surprisingly calm and caring. As you can imagine, this worried the girl a great deal. She’d have preferred to hear them arguing. Whispering adults hardly inspired confidence.

“She asked me,” Papa answered, “and I couldn’t say no. How could I?”

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” Again with the whisper. “She should just forget her. Who knows where she is? Who knows what they’ve done to her?”

OH MY GOD, THIS IS SO HORRIBLE! My props to you, Mr. Zusak. This all feels so real and vivid. It’s bad enough she lost her brother forever, it’s not enough she knows next to nothing about her father and where she is, her mother is probably being tortured by Nazis, right now. And she doesn’t even have a clue why!

There are certain things in books that are so strange and mysterious that I just beg to turn the pages because it’s no longer just a passive reading experience. It feels as real to me as anything in my life because I literally can’t believe what I’m reading and I honestly don’t have a clue what’s happening and what lies ahead. And I have to get back to the book because my whole mind is alive with wondering “Why? What does this mean? What is going to happen?”

What is a tesseract? What did it mean to Mrs. Murry, and how does this strange woman have a connection with that and with something that obviously meant something to Meg’s mother? Who and what is this mysterious Mrs. Whatsit, anyhow? And why is Charles Wallace so strange?

Why does Snape have such an irrational and inexplicable hatred of Harry?

Why does Moody seem to have a bad history with Igor Karkaroff?

And now:

Where was she?

What had they done to her?  

And once and for all, who, in actual fact, were they?

I WANT TO KNOW!

DEAD LETTERS

Okay, seriously, this book just gets more and more bizarre!

Flash forward to the basement, September 1943.

No, I’m not kidding. A FLASH-FORWARD. Two years before Lost made flash-forwards a thing! I mean, I never watched Lost, but even I know about them only from there. Did they steal the idea from this book?

And you know how I said before this book is obviously made to be re-read? Well, now I’m not even sure it was meant to be read the first time around at all. I mean, we’re getting a glimpse 3 years into the future. It’s hard to imagine how much would have happened to change the plot by then. And yet we don’t get much indication of these changes. We learn only 6 things about where we’ll be in September 1943:

  1. Liesel will still be alive at 14 years old, and in fairly good health, “bony but strong“.
  2. Hans will also still be alive, seemingly in good health. He will still have his accordion.
  3. Nothing will have happened to separate Hans and Liesel. I’m so happy to know this.
  4. Liesel will not get a reply to her letter or hear back from her mother at all in 1940.
  5. Liesel has a book to write in at this point.
  6. Other than that, nothing. We are told Liesel “has seen many things“, but the only other hint of things to come is the line “He scratches his leg, where the plaster used to be.” Does this mean Hans got plaster in his leg or is it a hint that they’re in a different basement than the Hubermann household’s? Because all we know about their location is that they’re in a basement.

Something we forget about books is they’re often written out of chronological order, just as movies are filmed out of chronological order. I have never read any book that so blatantly showed that as this one. In fact, it’s the only book that made me feel I’m reading it out of chronological order! If I wasn’t doing this book for the blog, I would be sorely tempted to skip 200 or 300 pages ahead and finish the book from there, or start reading the book backwards, just to see if it would make as much sense.

What’s interesting is that this is about the time (nearly 4 years after early November 1939) Death mentioned Rudy confessing to Liesel that he was worried about her “kicking him in the eggs” like she did to Ludwig Schmeikl. One thing I haven’t acknowledged is that flash-forwards and hinting at things to come really are neat gimmicks that most authors won’t dare use. (Though a cliche in television. Mad Men’s “Seven Twenty Three” is one of the only uses there that felt like an actual form of artistic expression.) So it’ll be very fun to see Zusak take us to these points and get context and satisfaction at having reached there.

For now, we don’t even need the flashback, because it just goes back to Hans sympathizing with Liesel in the present (if you can call it that) when she didn’t receive any reply.

In hindsight, she saw that the whole exercise had been pointless. Had her mother been in a position to do so, she would have already made contact with the foster care people, or directly with the girl, or the Hubermanns. But there had been nothing.

And what happened to her? Liesel isn’t a Jew, she’s a Lutheran like my late great-grandfather going on 30 in America, so why is her mother in trouble? Her father was apparently a Communist so perhaps his mother has vanished for the same reasons as him. So will this tie to Communism then make up the base of the conflict for Liesel as the war goes on?

Zusak/Death have made it clear how horrible it is for her, not knowing or understanding anything even at the levels we know and can insinuate. And it only gets worse:

To lend insult to injury, in mid-February, Liesel was given a letter from another ironing customer, the Pfaffelhürvers, from Heide Strasse. The pair of them stood with great tallness in the doorway, giving her a melancholic regard. “For your mama,” the man said, handing her the envelope. “Tell her we’re sorry. Tell her we’re sorry.”

And again there was no build-up for this as Rosa’s only real complaint against them was that they inspected the returned laundry carefully in front of her. Also, Liesel has written FIVE LETTERS. The heartbreak just gets worse!

Having shown a shot of 14-year-old Liesel, Zusak now speeds up the narrative to Liesel’s 11th birthday in presumably March of 1940. (I thought this created a chronology mistake in terms of Liesel’s age, but no, Zusak obviously edited this book well.) She gets no present because Hans spent that money on the books for Christmas. Misery from apparent happiness, indeed!

She simply swallowed the disappointment and decided on one calculated risk – a present from herself. She would gather all of the accrued letters to her mother, stuff them into one envelope, and use just a tiny portion of the washing and ironing money to mail it. Then, of course, she would take the Watschen, most likely in the kitchen, and she would not make a sound.

Good God, I want to reach through the book and stop this poor girl from doing this to herself! Something good does come out of it, though, in terms of the insight she receives once she’s sent the letters and admitted it to Rosa, who responds amicably by savagely beating her with a wooden spoon:

What came to her then was the dustiness of the floor, the feeling that her clothes were more next to her than on her, and the sudden realization that this would all be for nothing – that her mother would never write back and she would never see her again. The reality of this gave her a second Watschen. It stung her, and it did not stop for many minutes.

It really is amazing how vivid Zusak’s writing is. He conveys every iota of Liesel’s emotion and makes the reader feel in her place, desperate scared and alone, sprawled out on the floor for almost an hour, so miserable that Rosa even apologizes to her. I can relate to that. There are times when you’re so depressed and horrified you just have to curl up and hide in your own separate world, where no one can hurt you except your own mind, for there is nothing to do but ponder, ponder the hopelessness in an empty void.

In the way, there is an effect of watching a movie play out in front of us, actually, as we now hear Death’s narration coming in to give a scholarly analysis of the situation, with the perspective of time.

Liesel found some interesting food for thought, in reflecting on that time:

No matter how many times she tried to imagine that scene with the yellow light that she knew had been there, she had to struggle to visualize it. She was beaten in the dark, and she had remained there, on a cold, dark kitchen floor. Even Papa’s music was the color of darkness.

Even Papa’s music.

The strange thing was that she was vaguely comforted by that thought, rather than distressed by it.

The dark, the light.

What was the difference?

This is obviously a very meaningful passage. I suppose the idea is the fact that many children, and even some adults harbor a fear of the dark. I know I did for many years as a child, to the point I would make my mother leave the light on in the bathroom. I grew out of that, though, and I never understood why. You could say it was because I matured. But nowadays, I actually like the dark, due to the effect and eerie mood it creates. I’m writing this in the dark late into the wee hours of the morning, with no light but the computer monitor in front of me. And I don’t feel any safer than if the light were on. At any moment I can close my eyes tightly shut, and there is no change in my surroundings.

Because I have grown up, and seen the world the way it is. There’s no one who’s going to hurt me in the dark, and there’s no one who’s going to hurt me in the light. But if there was they could do it in the light just as easily as in the dark. Misery has come to Liesel out of happiness, and misery of her brother’s death came to Liesel out of the misery of having to say goodbye to her mother. Liesel has reached that coming-of-age moment, too. She’s 11, and this is the time encapsulated well in “Where the Wild Things Are”, when the world seems more complex and confusing, when you are not yet grown, not yet a teen, but well on your way and not quite a child anymore, either.

Nightmares had reinforced themselves in each, as the book thief began to truly understand how things were and how they would always be. If nothing else, she could prepare herself. Perhaps that’s why on the Führer‘s birthday, when the answer to the question of her mother’s suffering showed itself completely, she was able to react, despite her perplexity and her rage.

Liesel Meminger was ready.

Happy birthday, Herr Hitler.

Many happy returns.

I’m sorry if I don’t always act like it, but I really am just in love with the prose of this book. It’s bewitching, and in my first reading of the end of this chapter it simply captivated me, weaving me into a daze right to the finish. Re-reading it here, I find I could probably read it many more times and never get tired of it.

I saw my mother recently before I started working on this post or reading Part Two, and we had a long conversation about books and movies. Unfortunately she liked Water for Elephants a lot (though did thankfully acknowledge the ending to be “sentimental claptrap”), and found The Secret Garden such a slog she has no real memory of it, but we can agree on The Book Thief. I can’t post her reactions like I did for my aunt, because we didn’t actually read or discuss any of the book despite the fact that it was sitting right in front of us the whole time we talked.

But she said that she did like it. She mentioned how undeserving Stephen King is of the scorn he often receives, Misery being so vivid and descriptive she found herself admitting to a friend who wanted to know if she’d seen the movie (then in theaters) that she really didn’t know. I asked if she felt The Book Thief was one of those books with such vivid writing that puts you in the scene, and she after a moment’s thought, nodded her head and said “Yes I’d have to say it was.”

And I have to agree. It really is fantastic writing, and I like how Zusak is telling us this story from a definite future perspective, and yet we still are very involved in the action as he parcels it out, plays with our emotions, and teases what’s to come. Also… we’re going to find out what happened to Liesel’s mother! I’m glad he spoiled that bit of information!

I mean, sure, it’ll be horrible, but still…………


 

A funny story: My mom doesn’t read book titles on her Kindle or any information about a book because she likes to be completely surprised. Consequently she had actually started another book whose name she didn’t remember, and believed it was The Book Thief, so she was talking to my sister about it in great detail, and said she didn’t know why it was called The Book Thief because well, no book thievery had come up. Then when she realized the mistake, she stopped to ask why her daughter, who had read the book herself, hadn’t explained to her she had the wrong book when she went on and on about things that had never happened. “You never listen to me at all, do you! Just in one ear and out the other!”

(I will note she also loves Pride and Prejudice, it’s one of her favorite books, and apparently one of my brother’s, too. So apologies to any Australians named Daniel for bringing up people with such bad taste. She hasn’t read Gatsby.)