Hello, and welcome again! It’s good to be back. I apologize for the long delay. I hope to not keep you waiting nearly as long in the future (well, to the few people who actually care about these reviews), but there were matters in my personal life I had to attend to. Not to mention, I’m ashamed of it and I really am unhappy with this arrangement, but somehow I always find myself caught up in reading multiple books at once. As it is, here is the arrangement:
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan
11/22/63 by Stephen King
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (re-read)
I know, I know! It’s not right to get caught up in so many at once because a critic should only focus on analyzing one book at a time, yada yada yada. I agree completely, and I don’t know how this even keeps happening.
But rest assured, I am not thinking of any of those books right now. I only have my mind on this one, and my main thought is this: Where does the story go from here?
I mentioned at the end of the last review I didn’t know what was coming next, and that really is true. This is a very strange thing to say, because that’s the way it works with most books, but Zusak consistently dropped so much foreshadowing into the book to lay a neat road-map to Hitler’s birthday that I feel empty now that it’s all over and done with.
He has been hinting for quite a while at someone showing up at the Hubermann doorstep with something related to Hans’ past, but his last expansion on this gave the date as “the early hours of a November morning“. So this is still 7 months to come. Somehow I doubt Zusak is going to skip half a year entirely, but what is going to happen before then?
The subtitles for this part aren’t much help. The actual title of Part Three is “mein kampf“, which baffled me because… well, how is Hitler’s book going to drive the plot of 8 chapters and 7 months? It was only just yesterday, when watching a video review of The Book Thief’s first 2 parts*, that I realized that both of the first 2 parts were named after the important book that Liesel stole in them. I immediately felt ashamed for not noticing this myself.
The subtitle is
the way home – a broken woman – a struggler – a juggler – the attributes of summer – an aryan shopkeeper – a snorer – two tricksters – and revenge in the shape of mixed candy
I don’t have a clue what to make of any of this. These are the most incomprehensible “clues” he has given us yet.
THE WAY HOME
And the opening of this chapter just left me immediately more confused:
The book penned by the Führer himself.
I’ve talked about how idiosyncratic Zusak’s writing is, but one of the more controversial aspects of it I have been ignoring for quite some time, but I can do so no longer: He does not always use complete sentences. The book is written in a very conversational style, almost as Death is just sitting in front of us telling us the story, which is fine, but it seems like a violation of basic writing that so much of these sentences do not form complete ideas. They’re just sentence fragments, including the very first sentence of the entire book! I’m sorry. You can defend it and explain to me why I am wrong, but I just had to say that.
Death confuses me even further by stating that Liesel did not actually steal Mein Kampf (so will some parts just be named after a book Liesel happens to obtain, rather than steal, then?), and then offers us some vague hints at how she does get it before thankfully dropping us back into the scene with Hans and Liesel walking home on Hitler’s birthday.
As the ending of the last chapter was leading up to, Liesel cannot stand being burned by the book. It might make sense to just beat it out with her fist through the shirt, but instead she takes it out and juggles it from hand to hand.
Papa: “what the hell do you call that?”
He reached over and grabbed hold of The Shoulder Shrug.
Well, I was hoping Liesel could keep the book without anyone else noticing, but it’s pretty obvious this isn’t a big deal. I mean, as he proceeds to acknowledge through casual joking, Hans already kept her secret after finding the first book, right?
Something very strange and very interesting does proceed to happen, though:
Like most humans in the grip of revelation, Hans Hubermann stood with a certain numbness. The next words would either be shouted or would not make it past his teeth. Also, they would most likely be a repetition of the last thing he’d said, only moments earlier.
This time, his voice was like a fist, freshly banged on the table.
The man was seeing something. He was watching it quickly, end to end, like a race, but it was too high and too far away for Liesel to see.
This really is great writing. I am intrigued, as immediately we begin to see how something could be set up to get to that strange event in November.
And I really love everything about how it’s written. Nothing is illustrated in an especially conventional way in this book. (In fact, during the break between posts, I actually read this chapter multiple times just to admire how it flows.)
What marvelous act was Hans Hubermann about to produce from the thin Munich Street air?
Before I show you, I think we should first take a look at what he was seeing prior to his decision.
*** PAPA’S FAST-FACED VISIONS ***
First, he sees the girl’s books: The Grave Digger’s Handbook, Faust the Dog, The Lighthouse, and now The Shoulder Shrug. Next is a kitchen and a volatile Hans Junior, regarding those books on the table, where the girl often reads. He speaks: “And what trash is this girl reading?” His son repeats the question three times, after which he makes his suggestion for more appropriate reading material.
This really does come out of nowhere, but that’s what fills me with excitement. I mean, I can see how this “spoiling” is a legitimate literary method now. I could have quit reading after the last chapter, but how could I do that now? Hans has never seemed the type to come up with zany schemes, and hell, I don’t even understand what is motivating him, so what is going on?
The only real part of his strange, mysterious plan that we see set in motion in this chapter is that he goes to the Nazi Party office in the first few days of May and obtains a used copy of Mein Kampf.
“Happy reading,” said one of the party members.
“Thank you.” Hans nodded.
It’s good to see that it will be coming into play somehow. Already, the foreshadowing at the start of this chapter makes perfect sense, but all I can really get is that Hans’ plan is likely going to involve stealing books. But I don’t have a clue why he feels this is necessary.
From the street, he could still hear the men inside. One of the voices was particularly clear. “He will never be approved,” it said, “even if he buys a hundred copies of Mein Kampf.” The statement was unanimously agreed upon.
My first reaction to this was to smile, but I quickly realized that this is not a good thing at all to have the Nazis thinking of Hans this way. And it’s very strange. I mean, is it really that obvious to all the local party officials that Hans has no support for Hitler’s cause? He doesn’t seem to be very vocal about his beliefs, but it’s not a good thing that he seems to be labeled as staunchly against the government in any case.
We also get a hint at his motivations here:
Hans held the book in his right hand, thinking about postage money, a cigaretteless existence, and the foster daughter who had given him this brilliant idea.
So he wants to come up with a solution to their aforementioned cash problems. But will stealing books really get them that much? And aren’t there better ideas that don’t involve breaking the law?
Also somehow I imagined this vivid scene taking place on a bright early morning (it helped I read it for the first time on a bright early morning driving up to Springfield), but then I remembered Death said “The book showed up at 33 Himmel Street perhaps an hour after Liesel had drifted back to sleep from her obligatory nightmare“.
I should acknowledge some other foreshadowing Zusak has been doing, too:
There must have been a good share of mixed feelings at that moment, for Hans Hubermann’s idea had not only sprung from Liesel, but from his son. Did he already fear he’d never see him again?
I ignored it completely in my review back then, but after he left Himmel Street, Death gave heavy foreshadowing of Hans, Jr. dying at Stalingrad. I’ve noticed the book has been surprisingly free of actual death so far except for the opening, despite the setting and, well, the fact that the book is narrated by Death. It doesn’t mean much to me knowing that Hans, Jr. will probably die because he was in the story so little, but it disturbs me that Zusak seems to be willing to give away that kind of information because I don’t know what to expect at all, or how I’d feel about suddenly having that dropped on me.
The chapter ends on a very intriguing note:
On the other hand, he was also enjoying the ecstasy of an idea, not daring just yet to envision its complications, dangers, and vicious absurdities. For now, the idea was enough. It was indestructible. Transforming it into reality, well, that was something else altogether. For now, though, let’s let him enjoy it.
We’ll give him seven months.
Then we come for him.
And oh, how we come.
I feel unprofessional again, but well, how could I possibly quit reading now? I’m hooked! This is exactly what I was looking for. I don’t have a clue what is going to happen, but it seems like he honestly is replying in the story to everything I say here!
THE MAYOR’S LIBRARY
Death begins by clarifying the obvious:
Certainly, something of great magnitude was coming toward 33 Himmel Street, to which Liesel was currently oblivious.
He then gives us a bit of a surprise, however:
Someone had seen her.
The book thief reacted. Appropriately.
All right, so it seems that it wasn’t Rudy, after all. Well, it’s good to know that some lasting drama has come out of that, after all. And Zusak portrays Liesel’s paranoia very realistically.
For Liesel, the paranoia itself became the punishment, as did the dread of delivering some washing to the mayor’s house. It was no mistake, as I’m sure you can imagine, that when the time came, Liesel conveniently overlooked the house on Grande Strasse. She delivered to the arthritic Helena Schmidt and picked up at the cat-loving Weingartner residence, but she ignored the house belonging to Bürgermeister Heinz Hermann and his wife, Ilsa.
*** ANOTHER QUICK TRANSLATION ***
Bürgermeister = mayor
Note, however, that he makes a clear separation between “paranoia” and “dread”, as if to suggest that there is a point where paranoia ends for Liesel, and it becomes clear roughly who saw her.
And, Markus Zusak, I watched Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970) many a Christmas as a child, so I know exactly what “bürgermeister” means, thank you very much.
After the path, there were eight steps up to the main entrance of the house, and the great door was like a monster. Liesel frowned at the brass knocker.
“What are you waiting for?” Rudy called out.
Liesel turned and faced the street. Was there any way, any way at all, for her to evade this?
This is masterful tension-building, though I’ll admit at being surprised that Liesel is doing everything she can not to let on the source of her fear to Rudy. I know for a fact Death mentioned him being involved in her future book-thieving escapades, so she is obviously going to confide in him eventually.
It helps with the tension, though, as we are on the edge of our seat until our fear is abruptly ended, and we can sigh in relief like Liesel:
At first, she didn’t look at the woman but focused on the washing bag in her hand. She examined the drawstring as she passed it over. Money was handed out to her and then, nothing. The mayor’s wife, who never spoke, simply stood in her bathrobe, her soft fluffy hair tied back into a short tail. A draft made itself known. Something like the imagined breath of a corpse. Still there were no words, and when Liesel found the courage to face her, the woman wore an expression not of reproach, but utter distance. For a moment, she looked over Liesel’s shoulder at the boy, then nodded and stepped back, closing the door.
I will note an error, though, that remains here despite Markus Zusak’s scrupulous editing: Rosa ordered Liesel, “…if you don’t come home with the washing, don’t come home at all“. Yet Liesel has handed over the washing to the mayor’s wife now and before that there was a paragraph dedicated to why Liesel wouldn’t let Rudy handle the washing bag on the way there. I don’t know how that one passed him and his editors by unnoticed.
I will note also that he included one, and only one solitary hint as to the shadow’s identity before this chapter:
Perhaps the woman hadn’t seen her steal the book after all. It had been getting dark. Perhaps it was one of those times when a person appears to be looking directly at you when, in fact, they’re contentedly watching someone else or simply daydreaming.
When Frau Hermann was introduced, she was described as having “hair like fluff“, to match up with the shadow’s “fluffy hair“, though it’s doubtful anyone would remember a random description made eighty pages ago.
He does write very beautiful sentences, too:
Eleven-year-old paranoia was powerful. Eleven-year old relief was euphoric.
Before promptly ruining them with:
*** A LITTLE SOMETHING TO ***
DAMPEN THE EUPHORIA
She had gotten away with nothing.
The mayor’s wife had seen her, all right.
She was just waiting for the right moment.
OH MY GOD WHY. I CANNOT BELIEVE THESE WORDS ARE PRINTED HERE. WHY ARE YOU SUCH A SADIST. WHY DO YOU LOVE TORTURING US SO MUCH. GOOD FUCKING GOD JESUS CHRIST.
He then just passes through the next few weeks in 6 1-sentence paragraphs! And he writes “Reading The Shoulder Shrug between two and three o’clock each morning, post-nightmare, or during the afternoon, in the basement.” without telling us what this book is actually about, even though Liesel and Hans obviously know perfectly well! And then he just skips through “Another benign visit to the mayor’s house.” just to get to:
All was lovely.
GOOD GOD SADIST SADIST WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU.
He, of course, immediately hurls us into the following scene:
When Liesel next visited, minus Rudy, the opportunity presented itself. It was a pickup day.
The mayor’s wife opened the door and she was not holding the bag, like she normally would. Instead, she stepped aside and motioned with her chalky hand and wrist for the girl to enter.
She then leaves and comes back holding a pile of books, and invites Liesel into the house. Naturally, Liesel assumes the worst:
She’s going to torture me, Liesel decided. She’s going to take me inside, light the fireplace, and throw me in, books and all. Or she’ll lock me in the basement without any food.
And though there is palpable dread and tension, I had my doubts here. Would Zusak really do exactly what he’s been building to (when he hasn’t let us in on the outcome)? I had my own idea of what might follow. But surely Markus Zusak wouldn’t allow me to feel happiness like that? Surely he wouldn’t allow such light to penetrate these pages, would he……..
The mayor’s wife was not deterred. She only looked briefly behind and continued on, to a chestnut-colored door. Now her face asked a question.
Are you ready?
She said it out loud, the words distributed into a room that was full of cold air and books. Books everywhere! Each wall was armed with overcrowded yet immaculate shelving. It was barely possible to see the paintwork. There were all different styles and sizes of lettering on the spines of the black, the red, the gray, the every-colored books. It was one of the most beautiful things Liesel Meminger had ever seen.
He actually DOES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
With wonder, she smiled.
That such a room existed!
Even when she tried to wipe the smile away with her forearm, she realized instantly that it was a pointless exercise.
I don’t think I can communicate how brilliant this is. I feel so sorry for calling him a sadist, but he was. He built up so much happiness, then continually destroyed it only to let us and his characters bask in undiluted misery.
That’s been his consistent trend through 134 pages, and here he finally subverts it and gives us what we always wanted. And in a way I feel that it is also a subversion of novelistic expectations. Having the mayor’s wife throw Liesel in jail would be exciting. It would further the plot. And so would having her whipped like Gale in Catching Fire, or any number of horrible outcomes for her. But which do/should we really WANT? It’s uncomfortable to think about what sadists authors have turned us into, when fiction has the power to make us creatures of great empathy.
In a world where authority figures are feared by children, Liesel especially having become accustomed to this by the nuns at her school, the mayor’s wife is willing to let the rules slip just to send Liesel this small message to show her she has a friend, someone who understands her love for books. In a way it shows even people within the government from time to time can be resentful of the duties their higher-ups require them to perform. And it’s so rare that this happens that it makes this book all the more heartwarming and dare I say, life-affirming.
And the page that follows is pure beauty the likes of The Secret Garden (I am genuinely reminded of Ben’s tear-stained salute to Colin in the garden), and I know Markus Zusak did travel back in time to read my blog, and Markus, I’m sorry I thought you were 100% heartless. Though I know there is plenty of death to come, that the story ends with a lot of death, Liesel herself may likely die at the end, so I may end up apologizing for that, too.
But this is really a celebration of books, more than anything else. It’s easy to see why book lovers love this so much: because it’s a celebration of a love for literature, and it actually manages to do just that quite literally within the text. Many biblophiles may love it for this scene alone. As a biblophile, I would feel uncomfortable at the thought of someone not loving the book.
And what I particularly love is that Liesel doesn’t even read any of the books. This might seem silly to rational types, but it’s the idea that counts, the perfection that you appreciate and don’t want to interrupt:
It felt like magic, like beauty, as bright lines of light shone down from a chandelier. Several times, she almost pulled a title from its place but didn’t dare disturb them. They were too perfect.
To her left, she saw the woman again, standing by a large desk, still holding the small tower against her torso. She stood with a delighted crookedness. A smile appeared to have paralyzed her lips.
“Do you want me to-?”
Liesel didn’t finish the question but actually performed what she was going to ask, walking over and taking the books gently from the woman’s arms. She then placed them into the missing piece in the shelf, by the slightly open window.
Many authors would have had Liesel stop and read some of the books, but Zusak leaves her with this beautiful experience. Liesel knows that’s all the mayor’s wife intended her to have, that it would be enough, and so she goes on her way, having to try three times to leave, and then standing for several minutes in the hallway doing nothing.
And as she walks home she can do nothing but replay the entire experience in her mind. It’s amazing how well both emotions are evoked, hers and ours.
But then we see Liesel realize how little she repayed the woman’s generosity:
Soon, her sedated condition transformed to harassment and self-loathing. She began to rebuke herself.
“You said nothing.” Her head shook vigorously, among the hurried footsteps. “Not a ‘goodbye.’ Not a ‘thank you.’ Not a ‘that’s the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen.’ Nothing!” Certainly, she was a book thief, but that didn’t mean she should have no manners at all. It didn’t mean she couldn’t be polite.
But we will have no regret, no sour emotions to tide off this chapter. She runs back and thanks her, despite the mayor himself being there, undoubtedly very surprised by this seemingly excessive display of gratitude for the washing (at least I assume that’s what he thinks).
The mayor’s wife bruised herself again. Coming forward to stand beside her husband, she nodded very faintly, waited, and closed the door.
It took Liesel a minute or so to leave.
She smiled at the steps.
And that’s it, that’s the note our chapter ended on, for all the dread, suspense, and exhibition of the worst in human nature that led up to it. We end on a moment of unsolicited generosity, compassion, gratitude, and human empathy.
All that seems to be ignored and very difficult to find as wars play out.
I suppose I should have expected moments like this, though, considering that people like this book so much more than The Casual Vacancy. There were very few gleams of hope even at the end to interrupt that novel’s unrelenting cynicism, and people do not seem to respond well to that.
I, being a cynical Mad Men mega-fan who feels the ending to “Commissions and Fees” is a beautiful summation of life and the human condition, don’t tend to mind this kind of tale at all, but even I can’t help adoring this. If the central idea of Mad Men as spelled out by Don Draper is “What’s happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness”, then perhaps Markus Zusak’s idea is “What’s happiness? It’s a moment that you have had if you had it, it’s a moment your life was wholly and undeniably worth living because you had it”.
ENTER THE STRUGGLER
Many authors spend time and eternity puzzling over how best to introduce new characters into a plot and get the story going in new, interesting places.
Markus Zusak shakes his head and laughs at those authors. For you see, when you have Death as your friendly neighborhood narrator, you can just start off your next chapter like this:
Now for a change of scenery.
We’ve both had it too easy till now, my friend, don’t you think? How about we forget Molching for a minute or two?
It will do us some good.
Also, it’s important to the story.
And it’s times like this we are forced to remember that this is a story narrated by Death. It’s amazing the abrupt tonal shift this chapter is from the previous one. There is little conventional about Zusak’s writing. And doesn’t it feel like he’s just reaching through time and space to taunt me personally in the second line? I guess Zusak is conceding that in the end…. we just need some more happiness.
It gets worse:
*** A GUIDED TOUR OF SUFFERING ***
To your left,
perhaps your right,
perhaps even straight ahead,
you find a small black room.
In it sits a Jew.
He is scum.
He is starving.
He is afraid.
Please – try not to look away.
Death has taken us to the city of Stuttgart (unlike Molching, this is a non-fictional city, surprisingly enough). This Jew is being sheltered in a secret storage room in protection from the Holocaust.
It was the best place, they decided. It’s harder to find a Jew in the dark.
So the man is being sheltered here in the protection of either an organization of Jews, or an anti-Hitler resistance force. I had been wondering how the Holocaust would affect our characters in this book, since Liesel and the Hubermanns are privileged German citizens. Death had been mentioning a “Jewish fist-fighter” from the beginning, but even without that it seems obvious a Jew was going to come into play somewhere. In a way, I’m ashamed of Zusak for resorting to such an easy and overused plot device, but it’s obvious something needs to drive the conflict as we move through the war, and I suppose this is obviously best to depict the reality of the times. And depict this reality he does:
There was sleep, starving sleep, and the irritation of half awakeness, and the punishment of the floor.
Ignore the itchy feet.
Don’t scratch the soles.
And don’t move too much.
Just leave everything as it is, at all cost. It might be time to go soon. Light like a gun. Explosive to the eyes. It might be time to go. It might be time, so wake up. Wake up now, Goddamn it! Wake up.
Some readers may criticize the tonal change in this book as too abrupt, but I think it goes to demonstrate something very well: Think of how Liesel being bullied at school formed the climax of our first part, but by the end of the second part, both she and the boy involved realized it didn’t matter anymore and quietly made amends.
It is remarkable just how privileged Liesel and the Hubermanns are in their sheltered existence as middle-class Germans, when you look at this Jewish man. Liesel has been having nightmares, sure, but she has a wonderful foster father. This is nothing compared to the hell that marks this innocent man’s every waking hour, and what’s worse is that there is next to nothing that he can do to alleviate his suffering anymore and he did absolutely nothing to deserve it at all. Zusak pours his all into portraying just how nightmarish and paranoia-inducing his life is, brilliantly through his style of writing that relies on vivid sensory details (furthered by the sentence fragments) that break from orthodox, detached writing that describes everything professionally and analytically. In fact, he does it so well that it actually becomes physically uncomfortable to read.
Death really spells out the privilege Liesel has in her regular nightly comfortings from Hans in this one passage, in particular:
“Max,” [a voice] whispered. “Max, wake up.”
His eyes did not do anything that shock normally describes. No snapping, no slapping, no jolt. Those things happen when you wake from a bad dream, not when you wake into one.
A man has arrived, but only briefly. He mentions a man with an identity card, says he is concerned about being watched, and leaves Max with the identity card and a key inside a book, along with a small amount of food, then leaves, saying he will be back in a few days. Apparently, Max already has a map and directions for where he needs to go. We don’t know where this is yet, and it is also noteworthy that Death does not mention who this man is and gives next to no physical description, so that’s one mystery we still have at this point.
Things start to make sense at the end, though:
“Please,” he said. “Please.”
He was speaking to a man he had never met. As well as a few other important details, he knew the man’s name. Hans Hubermann.
This isn’t very surprising, considering how much Death foreshadowed someone coming in November and the frequent mentions of Hans caring for and coming up with a plan to help a “Jewish fist fighter”. In fact, I believe Max’s last name “Vandenburg” was actually given at some point prior, even though it isn’t mentioned here.
It does prove Hans is not the man who came to see Max, but this was unlikely from the beginning due to this setting being more than a hundred miles away.
And in any case the story is brought full circle with this line and now we have a good idea of the exciting new direction this story is about to go in.
THE ATTRIBUTES OF SUMMER
Death opens with a matter-of-fact summing up of the events that have preceded, and brings us right back to Liesel, informing us of how she spent her summer back in her heavily sterilized world on Himmel Street.
For the book thief, the summer of that year was simple. It consisted of four elements, or attributes. At times, she would wonder which was the most powerful.
So we have all in one, the title for this chapter and its road map:
*** AND THE NOMINEES ARE… ***
1. Advancing through The Shoulder Shrug every night.
2. Reading on the floor of the mayor’s library.
3. Playing soccer on Himmel Street.
4. The seizure of a different stealing opportunity.
The second event is surprising enough, and I’m conflicted about how I feel about it. because I really did feel it would be stronger to have Liesel only allowed to experience the library in that one scene, and to have that one event make such a long-lasting impact on her that she didn’t need to actually read any of the books. However, I don’t know where Zusak is going to take this story in this area, and I am willing to wait and see if the events surrounding this become so important to the overall plot that it was 100% necessary for Liesel to make extended visits.
The fourth “nominee” just leaves me shocked and confused, actually. The best we can get of Hans’ plan is that it involves this Jewish man, though it’s obvious Hans had been helping him for some time and it’s still very unclear how Liesel gave him an inspiration for a plan apparently involving Max. I don’t see what real motivation Liesel has at this point to continue stealing, either, or how it could help Max. In fact, it seems strange that something apparently relating to this plan is going to come up, considering Max won’t arrive until November.
I suppose Zusak is actually using his “spoiling/foreshadowing” well at this point in the narrative because unlike the last part, where he simply gave us all the basic information of what would happen in the end, he’s included so much foreshadowing that I am dying to figure out what happens next, but at the same time he made it all so vague that I don’t feel I have any way of accurately guessing other than to read on. So let’s do that.
I got the impression Death was going to be vague about The Shoulder Shrug and not give us any idea as to its actual contents. In fact, at this point, I had given up all hope of learning “exactly what kind of threat this book posed to the hearts and minds of the German people“, but I was nevertheless pleased to get our answer:
The protagonist was a Jew, and he was presented in a positive light.
I can’t help but chuckle at the meta nature of this, because we just got through reading a chapter of THIS book where a Jew was presented in a positive light, and Death’s last line is an obvious self-referential wink at that fact.
And am I catching him praising his own sensory details here?
In the early part of summer in Molching, as Liesel and Papa made their way through the book, this man was traveling to Asterdam on business, and the snow was shivering outside. The girl loved that- the shivering snow. “That’s exactly what it does when it comes down,” she told Hans Hubermann.
We get a straightforward demonstration of the difference between Liesel and Max’s nights here, as Liesel only grows more fond of her foster father and we get this bitter update on Hans, Jr.:
She often heard him and Mama discussing his lack of work or talking despondently about Hans going to see their son, only to discover that the young man had left his lodging and was most likely already on his way to war.
I gather it will be in 1942 or 1943 that he dies, too. Shame his last words to Hans will be “You coward”. I’m sure Death will remind us of that when he does meet his inevitable end at Stalingrad. (You know, I do this sometimes with TV shows that are spoiled for me, think bitterly about how close a person is on their path to death or so on, and it feels so strange to be encouraged to do this, and left with no real other option.)
But forget that! Let’s bring back that checklist!
Advancing through The Shoulder Shrug every night.
- Reading on the floor of the mayor’s library.
- Playing soccer on Himmel Street.
- The seizure of a different stealing opportunity.
Liesel has obviously been visiting the library for some time, and surprisingly she’s still being completely secretive to Rudy about this. Oh, and Death is taunting me for my earlier stupidity:
“Saukerl,” she laughed, and as she held up her hand, she knew completely that he was simultaneously calling her a Saumensch. I think that’s as close to love as eleven-year-olds can get.
All right, I’m a complete idiot for saying Rudy was romantically interested in Liesel! I KNOW, I KNOW. SHUT UP AND STOP TAUNTING ME!
We then learn Liesel has made 3 previous visits to the library and it was thankfully the mayor’s wife who suggested that she read one. There isn’t very much happiness revolving around the books, either. Frau Hermann’s strange, quiet, emotional state was notable throughout that previous chapter, too, but here it comes front and center:
On this occasion, as Liesel stood in the cool surrounds of the room, her stomach growled, but no reaction was forthcoming from the mute, damaged woman. She was in her bathrobe again, and although she observed the girl several times, it was never for very long. She usually paid more attention to what was next to her, to something missing.
And on her next visit, we get an answer when Liesel finds the name Johann Hermann written on a picture book and inquires as to his identity.
“He is nothing now in this world,” she explained. “He was my…”
Naturally, we get some beautiful writing that takes full advantage of this story’s unique perspective:
*** THE FILES OF RECOLLECTION ***
Oh, yes, I definitely remember him.
The sky was murky and deep like quicksand.
There was a young man parceled up in barbed wire,
like a giant crown of thorns. I untangled him and carried him
out. High above the earth, we sank together,
to our knees. It was just another day, 1918.
I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t anticipating this revelation, honestly. This woman had clearly been unhappy and emotionally crippled by something. She showed that by just how quiet and sad she’d been in every scene. If you go back, it’s easy to see Zusak laying the pieces for where the story would go at any moment with her being introduced by Rosa as “…sit[ting] at home all day, too mean to light a fire… Absolutely. Crazy.” and being described as having a “posture of defeat“. It’s amazing how even the smallest details become important later on, similar to J.K. Rowling. I mean, he even referred to her as a “broken woman” 2 chapters ago and in the subtitle of this part, but I still ignored that because I didn’t want to see anything dampen Liesel’s happiness.
Death just spells out what Liesel has to learn from this woman, also:
The point is, Ilsa Hermann had decided to make suffering her triumph. When it refused to let go of her, she succumbed to it. She embraced it.
She could have shot herself, scratched herself, or indulged in other forms of self-mutilation, but she chose what she probably felt was the weakest option-to at least endure the discomfort of the weather. For all Liesel knew, she prayed for summer days that were cold and wet. For the most part, she lived in the right place.
This really is amazingly similar to the message of The Secret Garden, and it does a lot to explain what we’ve seen so far. The book is very grim right down to its narrator and has such dark writing at times, yet it also seems very light, pleasant, and human most of the time, too. Death was probably trying to show life for what it really is. Not a totally evil, unforgiving place, but something that is mixed, and happiness can be found even in the worst of times. Which explains why we keep getting happiness periodically ruined by soul-crushing sadness. Liesel is getting cushioned from the war for now, but as it becomes a living hell for everyone, she will have to find something to live for, and Frau Hermann serves as a reminder of why. Perhaps she’s even showing Liesel these books because she senses Liesel has that opportunity that she herself is incapable of, in fact.
She tries to deny that Liesel did anything wrong in bringing it up, at any rate. And Death then seems to be pointing out Liesel doesn’t have all that much privilege but will need to rely on words as her main weapon, and we get some new foreshadowing:
And how awful (and yet exhilarating!) it would feel many months later, when she would unleash the power of this newfound discovery the very moment the mayor’s wife let her down. How quickly the pity would leave her, and how quickly it would spill over into something else completely….
Wow. I really am not liking where it sounds like this is going to go. It’s actually fairly shocking, in fact. But, as Death (who seems increasingly to be speaking directly to me personally) points out:
That was all. It was part two of her existence that summer.
Advancing through The Shoulder Shrug every night.
Reading on the floor of the mayor’s library.
- Playing soccer on Himmel Street.
- The seizure of a different stealing opportunity.
Part three, thank God, was a little more lighthearted-Himmel Street soccer.
He gives us a nice brief depiction of this time in his short sensory images, but really I don’t care much whether the story is “lighthearted” or not anymore. I’m sick of this endless game, and I’m not going to think about it anymore.
This “third attribute” of the summer is actually very short because the only thing plot-relevant Zusak can really bring to it is to show Liesel trying to settle things with Tommy Müller now in the aftermath of peace with Ludwig Schmeikl.
I enjoyed how terrified Tommy is of her, but I find it a bit strange Liesel was so eager to make up.
“How could I know you were smiling for me that day?” she asked him repeatedly.
I don’t see why it really matters. It seemed like no one was standing up for Liesel being bullied and everyone except Rudy was basically laughing at her. So Liesel beating up Tommy for smiling seemed to be anger at his hypocrisy, since he was obviously just enjoying seeing a fight.
Advancing through The Shoulder Shrug every night.
Reading on the floor of the mayor’s library.
Playing soccer on Himmel Street.
- The seizure of a different stealing opportunity.
I will say that Zusak is very good at depicting the simple world of childhood, and this continues as we get into “part four, summer 1940“. Times are getting worse due to rationing and their families not having enough money, so Rudy is very hungry. The story takes a brief tangent from this point when Liesel tries to learn to swim in the Amper River.
“Come on,” Rudy coaxed her in. “Just here. It isn’t so deep here.” She couldn’t see the giant hole she was walking into and sank straight to the bottom. Dog-paddling saved her life, despite nearly choking on the swollen intake of water.
I can’t be the only one reading this who was reminded of Carl falling through the hollow board in the opening of Up, but also my own sister nearly drowned like this in the public pool and given she had to be saved by a lifeguard, I’m inclined to question whether dogpaddling would work so easily. Also, it just seems strange, and…
He called after her. “Does this mean I don’t get a kiss for teaching you?”
The nerve of him!
Good God, I thought we were done with all that nonsense after Rudy comforted her about her brother’s death! But thankfully, we move on to the development of the actual stealing. We get a very vivid re-creation of peer pressure and the sort of horrible gangs kids can form (though I find it strange and horrifying they would accept 6-year-olds) as they convince a group of young apple thieves to help them and the story moves very quickly.
Also, one of them is Ludwig Schmeikl’s brother, so we get this absolutely wonderful and hilarious bit:
“Isn’t this the one who beat up your brother, Andel?” Word had certainly made its way around. A good hiding transcends the divides of age.
Another boy – one of the short, lean ones – with shaggy blond hair and ice-colored skin, looked over. “I think so.”
Rudy confirmed it. “It is.”
Andy Schmeikl walked across and studied her, up and down, his face pensive before breaking into a gaping smile. “Great work, kid.” He even slapped her among the bones of her back, catching a sharp piece of shoulder blade. “I’d get whipped for it if I did it myself.”
Zusak, you remember sibling rivalry too well. This could easily be me or either of my sisters back when we were young children.
It surprises me very much, however, that this has nothing to do with book thievery. Considering the title of this book, you’d expect Zusak to cram some further book thievery in there somewhere, but no, they just steal the apples and happily eat them, in a scene very akin to the short story “A Quarter’s Worth of Fireworks”.
Advancing through The Shoulder Shrug every night.
Reading on the floor of the mayor’s library.
Playing soccer on Himmel Street.
The seizure of a different stealing opportunity.
That afternoon, before they returned home, Liesel and Rudy consumed six apples apiece within half an hour. At first, they entertained thoughts of sharing the fruit at their respective homes, but there was considerable danger in that. They didn’t particularly relish the opportunity of explaining just where the fruit had come from. Liesel even thought that perhaps she could get away with only telling Papa, but she didn’t want him thinking that he had a compulsive criminal on his hands. So she ate.
It is sad to see two good kids turning to crime like this. I think even Hans would be very ashamed and angry if he learned about their criminal activities. And fittingly the chapter ends with Liesel getting bad consequences in the form of vomiting basically all of them over dinner, though it matters little:
Quickly, [Rosa] turned back to face the vomiting Saumensch. “Well? What is it? What is it, you filthy pig?”
She said nothing.
The apples, she thought happily. The apples, and she vomited one more time, for luck.
Liesel definitely seems to be enjoying the life of crime she has embarked on, and nothing can bring her back. As Death predicted, the gates of thievery have closed on her, but I really am surprised at where this chapter went. I had predicted Hans heading a series of adventures related to stealing books to further his mysterious plan, so I find myself wondering how exactly Liesel inspired this plan and how he will carry it out in the roughly three months to follow. (My, but this did move fast!)
So, I did enjoy these few chapters. It was all very well-written (as always) and it set up the story twists to come well. Now, I can only guess Liesel will make her way back to being “the book thief” in the three-hundred-and-eighty-four pages to come.
*I love Matt’s Book Vs. Movies comparisons, and I highly recommend his videos reviewing The Book Thief, as they are very insightful: