Archives for posts with tag: markus zusak

As I said in the last review, Markus Zusak/Death has basically laid out a blueprint for the closing of this part, so what will be interesting in reading these four is to see how Zusak plays with my expectations and how he fills in the gaps in what I’ve managed to figure out so far.

Some information I admittedly am not supposed to know at this point, such as the fact that Liesel will be stealing from the Mayor’s library, which I read on the back cover. This could be intuited, however, by the fact that every part is named after a book important to it, and this part, titled “the whistler,” opens with the image of a book floating in the river in December 1941. I have most of the events of the final chapter worked out in my head. Viktor Chemmel will steal the book from Liesel and throw it in the river out of revenge, and Rudy will go in to rescue it. Why, however, Liesel and Rudy will be stealing this particular book, and what happens in between these two events, is yet to be discovered.

Before diving into any of that, however, Chapter 5 of Part Five opens with

SKETCHES

As much as I feel more positive about this chapter than I was about the last,
I have to start this review off with a criticism.

If the summer of 1941 was walling up around the likes of Rudy and Liesel, it was writing and painting itself into the life of Max Vandenburg.

I know this is obviously an attempt at another metaphor by Zusak, but I have read this over several times and have no clue what it means. It could mean that the summer is closing in on them and appearing to be more threatening now, but the choice of words is still, frankly, confusing, and that’s as best as I can work it out.

This may not be important, however, because this chapter does return to one of the important themes in the book, the power of words:

In his loneliest moments in the basement, the words started piling up around him. The visions began to pour and fall and occasionally limp from out of his hands.

This time, Zusak puts an emphasis on how those words can be transformed not into visual metaphors that create a picture in your head, but literal sketches. Obviously, we have already seen something similar in The Standover Man, but the two sketches we see differ in that they do not add up to tell a cohesive story necessarily, but rather are an exercise in surrealism and visual imagery. They are so surreal, however, that I’m grateful Zusak does give some insight into Max’s thought process in creating them:

It was a collection of random thoughts and he chose to embrace them. They felt true. They were more real than the letters he wrote to his family and to his friend Walter Kugler, knowing very well that he could never send them. The desecrated pages of Mein Kampf were becoming a series of sketches, page after page, which to him summed up the events that had swapped his former life for another.

While Max is asleep, Liesel comes down and finds the book leaning against him and glimpses 2 of the sketches. The two we see are so strange and disturbing that I am glad Death did explicitly mention that they were representations of Max’s own experiences, because otherwise they appear to simply be exercises in surrealistic black comedy. The second sentence quoted here, however, offers another parallel between Max and Liesel that I am glad Death doesn’t spell out this time. Liesel was able to write letters to her real mother in the hope against hope that she might receive them, while Max writes letters to his family knowing that he can never even send them, as long as the war is ongoing.

But as to the sketches, both occupy a full page and the first one shows an actually fairly detailed pencil sketch of Hitler standing on top of his podium appearing to lead a crowd of onlookers seen only from the back in a Nazi salute, except that a speech buble comes from Hitler’s mouth containing musical notes. The subtitle underneath reads “Not the Führer- the conductor!” The implication here is strange, but appears to be that Hitler used his words like music to entrance the German public, which is what led Max to be persecuted.

The second sketch shows two figures standing atop a large clump of dead bodies with one, a girl, saying “Isn’t it a lovely day…” as they stare up at a sun which flashes both its rays and a swastika at them. This one, despite being yet more surreal, is easier to interpret, as the two figures are likely intended to represent Max and Liesel, who cling to the small pieces of happiness and joy that come their way, despite the fact that they live in Nazi Germany, in the middle of a war that leaves more and more bodies piling up every day.

Liesel, on the other hand, is a bit too young to grasp the intricacies of black comedy, which is why Max never intended to show the sketches to her at this age, and the chapter ends when Liesel hides from an awakening Max the fact that she was reading the book and goes up the stairs thinking:

You scared me, Max.

This probably is not meant just to illustrate Liesel’s lack of understanding of black comedy, though, but rather the fact that at her young age she is unwilling to even admit that they are finding joy in a world filled with great horror or perhaps even to admit that their world has been so overtaken by horrors. The sketch is important, though, in that it represents what Liesel and Max really are doing, and the horrifying reality is that there is actually nothing wrong with that, except for the sad truth that these precious nuggets of happiness will likely grow harder and harder to come by as the war goes on.

THE WHISTLER AND THE SHOES

Death begins this chapter by acknowledging that all the events that have been described in this part form part of a cycle, or routine, and thankfully summarizes it to get to the point where the routine is finally broken:

It’s also worthy of mention that every pattern has at least one small bias, and one day it will tip itself over, or fall from one page to another. In this case, the dominant factor was Rudy.

This is an interesting theory, although in this case it seems clear that the reason Rudy will soon be more important to the narrative is to add more development to his character, since he has been marked to die.

Death again paints a picture of Rudy wandering down Himmel Street filthy,
having been forced to perform extra Hitler Youth drills in a field, this time carrying his shirt which has been covered in not mud this time, but rather…

“The field at Hitler Youth just got fertilized.” He gave his shirt another halfhearted, disgusted appraisal. “It’s cow manure, I think.”
“Did what’s-his-name-Deutscher-know it was there?”
“He says he didn’t. But he was grinning.”

I appreciate that Zusak is trying to show us that Rudy’s exploits at the Hitler Youth will become more important, but for now all this serves is a rather weak motivation for Liesel to get back into book thievery.

After a moment’s thought, he raised his head, just a touch. “Look at me. I’m filthy. I stink like cow shit, or dog shit, whatever your opinion, and as usual, I’m absolutely starving.” He paused. “I need a win, Liesel. Honestly.”
Liesel knew.
She’d have gone closer but for the smell of him.
Stealing.
They had to steal something.

This seems so childish and petty the only thing that comes close to redeeming it, apart from the fact that Liesel and Rudy are children, is the fundamental innocence and weakness of these two characters, especially at this moment in time.

One of my commentators attempted to defend Liesel and Rudy for stealing in the past by arguing that they only committed their crimes out of “a desire to control something” at an age and in a place where they would otherwise have no control. This point in the book seems to illustrate that point well, but even though they hem-and-haw for nearly two pages about where to steal from and what to steal, it’s obvious this is always going to come back to Liesel stealing the book from the Mayor’s wife, despite having rejected it when it was offered to her.

At that very moment, Liesel was presented with a decision. Could she truly carry out what she was thinking? Could she really seek revenge on a person like this? Could she despise someone this much?

I was hoping to get a lot more insight into Liesel’s thought process and her contemplations of whether or not to take the book than what we do get here, but the real problem is that the book treats it like it’s a real defining moment of Liesel’s morality. When really that moral turning point for her already came when she made the decision to castigate and shame the Mayor’s wife. What Liesel’s doing is indeed petty, but it’s not a petty act of revenge or even something hurtful. It’s a petty act of saying “Alright, changed my mind.” Nothing more and nothing less.

There is a brief fake-out where Rudy and Liesel get to the Mayor’s house and find the library’s window has been locked, and it appears Liesel’s plan for revenge will not come to fruition, but no. They steal nothing else, just come back a week later and the window is open. No time is spent on Liesel and Rudy trying to work out other ways to get into the house, and Rudy doesn’t even bring up the possibility of simply stealing somewhere else, even though he’s the one who came up with the idea of stealing something and he has no personal vendetta against the Mayor’s family.

No, the repugnant truth was this:
She didn’t care about the food. Rudy, no matter how hard she tried to resist the idea, was secondary to her plan. It was the book she wanted.
 The Whistler. She wouldn’t tolerate having it given to her by a lonely, pathetic old woman. Stealing it, on the other hand, seemed a little more acceptable. Stealing it, in a sick kind of sense, was like earning it.

I’m trying to understand Liesel’s motivations here, and while incredibly petty, this at least makes some sense. I haven’t stolen much of anything in my life, so I can’t relate to this, but it seems her morality has been warped by the constant stealing for Berg (and now Chemmel)’s gang, as well as the two previous occasions on which she stole a book, which were approved of by Hans, so that now she believes stealing a book is the most pure form of obtaining one. It’s childish, and frankly a bit disgusting, but what really strikes me as abhorrent isn’t Liesel’s desire to steal, or even her selfish motivations that have nothing to do with helping her friend feel better, but the fact that she has such contempt for a woman for being depressed and emotionally scarred by the death of her son, and continues to project her own insecurities onto her. And I’m not sure if Zusak wants us to see it that way, either.

They laughed nervously for a moment before going through the motions of who should go in and who should stand watch. As the male in the operation, Rudy clearly felt that he should be the aggressor, but it was obvious that Liesel knew this place. It was she who was going in. She knew what was on the other side of the window.
She said it. “It has to be me.”

And now I don’t even understand what Rudy has to gain from this. The Hitler Youth plotline provided such a slim motivation for this plotline, but now it feels like there’s nothing. Rudy didn’t mastermind this plan himself, and he’s not even the one breaking in to commit the theft, so how would this be a much-needed “win” for him? He doesn’t even seem to understand why Liesel is angry at the Mayor’s wife or to know about the book she tried giving away, as he still insists she look for food and cigarettes (because in that time period, cigarettes were apparently worth so much they were only valued less than food?) and if Liesel had stolen either of those items, this would be truly petty and despicable, since it would be something the Mayor and his family might actually miss.

There is a brief description of the sense of nostalgia and joy Liesel feels despite herself upon being inside the library again, but this would be more effective if it hadn’t been only 4 months since she was last in there. The narrative then quickly shifts to an attempt at tension, as Liesel can’t find the book on the shelf, and Rudy warns her of footsteps coming from upstairs, but this is resolved in 2 paragraphs as she then sees the book lying on the Mayor’s desk, grabs it, and jumps out the window again.

Once Rudy and Liesel get safely away from the house, Rudy notices the book and realizes what Liesel’s real plan was, but he doesn’t even get the chance to be angry at his friend for tricking him before Liesel notices that he left her shoes at the Mayor’s house, so Rudy runs back to get them. This feels unnecessary except to paint Rudy as an ideal friend and grant him one small victory (albeit only one of correcting his own mistake), but it does admittedly provide us with, in my opinion, the only genuine moment of tension in this chapter:

The minutes were heavy while he was gone.
Darkness was now complete and Liesel was quite certain that a
 Watschen was most likely in the cards when she returned home. “Hurry,” she murmured, but still Rudy didn’t still appear. She imagined the sound of a police siren throwing itself forward and reeling itself in. Collecting itself.
Still, nothing.

It doesn’t last long, as Rudy soon returns with the shoes and tries again to extort a kiss from Liesel, but I really did feel like I was there with Liesel in the dark, experiencing genuine fear and tension about Rudy and whether or not their crime would be discovered. And I do genuinely like the rest of the chapter, now that the conflict has been resolved and it winds itself to a close. Zusak managed for the first time in a while to paint an image of a scene in my mind, and it genuinely feels like we’re seeing two real friends quietly having a conversation with each other. This passage, in particular, is a very nice human detail:

“Speaking of which, I think we’re both slightly in for it when we get home. You especially.”
“Why me?”
“You know-your mama.”
“What about her?” Liesel was exercising the blatant right of every person who’s ever belonged to a family. It’s all very well for such a person to whine and moan and criticize other family members, but they won’t let
 anyone else do it. That’s when you get your back up and show loyalty.

This is so beautifully true it really is a rare instance here of wonderful, human writing, and it doesn’t feel like Zusak, in fact. It feels more like a passage that, if modified, could easily belong to a much different writer like C.S. Lewis.

Zusak also paints a picture of Rudy from Liesel’s 3rd-person POV that describes how he has been growing and changing with age very vividly, reminding me of several of Rowling’s descriptions in The Casual Vacancy. It creates a much stronger portrait of him, in fact, than the literal “Portrait of Rudy Steiner, July 1941” we got earlier, and manages much more to imbue us with the sad realization that he will die before he has the chance to truly age, so that in a way Rudy is close now to being as old as he ever will be.

The chapter ends with Rudy and Liesel returning to their separate houses and reminiscing about the old days of last year when Berg was running their gang, and it really does feel like another precious pocket of humanity like the one we got with Liesel and Hans at the end of “The Gamblers,” and moments like this really are much needed.

As we’re both aware, she’d stolen books previously, but in late October 1941, it became official. That night, Liesel Meminger truly became the book thief.

And yet I can’t help but feel that even if the Mayor’s wife had caught Liesel in the act of stealing her book, she would have simply frowned stoically and allowed (if not encouraged) Liesel to climb back out the window with it. Combining that with the fact that only one of the three stolen books would be missed, I hear Remy’s father in Ratatouille explaining to his son that “It isn’t stealing if no one wants it.” And the voice of another little rat shouting back, “If no one wants it, why are we stealing it?”

THREE ACTS OF STUPIDITY BY RUDY STEINER

What’s strange about this book is how often it can seem like a series of vignettes loosely tied together, and this chapter in particular feels a bit like a short story detailing a few misadventures of Rudy. However, Death’s statement that Rudy was the “dominant factor” in the book’s pattern of events is now proving itself to be true as it becomes clear now this entire part has revolved around Rudy in some way, from the knowledge of his untimely death to his conflicts with Deutscher in the Hitler Youth and Chemmel in the apple-stealing gang, to his endless attempts to extort a kiss out of Liesel, all of which is tied together in these last two chapters.

The chapter begins with Death, as he often does, giving us a blueprint of the chapter to come:

***RUDY STEINER, PURE GENIUS***
1. He stole his biggest potato
from Mamer’s, the local grocer.
2. Taking on Franz Deutscher
on Munich Street.
3. Skipping the Hitler Youth
meetings altogether.

One problem I have with the scene to follow is that there is very little description, and the description we do get is confusing. Death throws us into the scene at Mamer’s with Rudy attempting to steal a potato with no physical description of the store to allow us to picture it. When the owner, Mamer, confronts Rudy over his attempted theft, Zusak writes that Mamer was “still holding Rudy by the collar” despite never stating he was holding him by the collar to begin with, and tells us 2 paragraphs later that he “held Rudy in one hand and the potato in the other,” even though the last we had heard, “the potato was still in Rudy’s hands (he couldn’t hold it in just the one)” and Death never mentions Mamer taking it from him, which creates unseen jumps in time that are awkward and break up the narrative.
As for my thoughts on the section as a whole, there is brief tension as Mamer threatens to call the police on Rudy, but he is then forced to rely on pity to get him out of this situation, as he begs his schoolteacher to tell the grocer how poor he is to guilt-trip Mamer into letting him go. It works, and it’s another small redeeming moment for humanity, but what I found noteworthy is this line:

He was in the percentage of teachers at school who were not priests or nuns.

I felt a bit guilty for being hard on religion when discussing the corporal punishment administered at Liesel’s school, but it seems clear that Zusak, despite keeping this book fairly neutral in terms of belief, as I mentioned earlier, seems to share those feelings of religious distrust. (The only other thing I found worth mentioning here was that Zusak uses the word “ejaculated” to stand in for “exclaimed”, which I didn’t think was possible for a writer to do any more, but Zusak might have chosen to use it due to the book’s period setting.)

And despite Death claiming at the start of the chapter that “the problem with Rudy’s first act was greed,” I think what this whole chapter of the story really illustrates is instead Rudy’s rebellious, impulsive and impetuous nature, and how it gets him into trouble as Rudy tries to secure petty victories to boost his self-esteem, only to inevitably end up digging himself further and further down.

Death sums this misadventure of Rudy Steiner up well:

For Rudy, it was yet another failure.

From there, the narrative moves to Rudy’s second act of stupidity, with Death spoiling for us that he “would finish this particular altercation with a black eye, cracked ribs and a haircut,” which shows his luck will not be improving, obviously, but braces us for what is to come. The incident Death describes first with Rudy in the Hitler Youth seems to further my theory that Rudy’s problems are mostly caused by his rebelliousness, however, when Deutscher asks him the Hitler Youth’s favorite question:

“When was our Führer, Adolf Hitler, born?”
Rudy looked up. “Sorry?”
The question was repeated, and the very stupid Rudy Steiner, who knew all too well that it was April 20, 1889, answered with the birth of Christ. He even threw in Bethlehem as an added piece of information.

What’s worth noting is that Rudy, unlike Liesel, has no personal reason to hate the Nazi regime at this point, so the book isn’t trying to show a 13-year-old as being better than his time, which I appreciate, as it’s clear this act of rebellion is motivated by his disdain for Deutscher, not Hitler himself. Which is further drilled in when we get to Rudy’s actual “second act of stupidity”:

On Munich Street, Rudy noticed Deutscher walking along the footpath with some friends and felt the need to throw a rock at him.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! FUCKING SERIOUSLY. WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?

But in all honesty, even for an act of stupidity, this act is so shocking and blatantly pointless that Death himself again interrupts to respond to me:

You might well ask just what the hell he was thinking. The answer is, probably nothing at all. He’d probably say that he was exercising his God-given right to stupidity. Either that, or the very sight of Franz Deutscher gave him the urge to destroy himself.

Well, yeah, no shit, Sherlock… but this honestly is one of the few moments it felt like Zusak was deliberately making a character act in a certain way just to create conflict, rather than as something that grew organically out of the narrative. However, given Rudy’s established impulsive and rebellious nature, combined with the fact that he is 13, I’m willing to excuse this, and what’s important is not only does this fail to secure a “win” for Rudy, it also results in his worst humiliation yet. As you could imagine, Deustcher doesn’t take too kindly to this, so he responds by savagely attacking Rudy, throwing him into the pavement three times, giving him the aforementioned black eye and cracked ribs. Unlike the earlier scene where Liesel beats up the two boys, there is nothing fun or gratifying about reading this, and it’s one of the most uncomfortable scenes to read in the whole book, especially if you imagine Deutscher is a few years older than Rudy, yet he still has no problem beating the fucking shit out of him as if he’s even a fair match. There’s even a moment where he pulls a knife on Rudy, and even though we know Rudy will only receive a haircut and he won’t die for another 2 years, it’s still only natural to expect the worst. And Deutscher concludes this humiliation by asking Rudy the question of Hitler’s birthday again:

And Rudy?
How did he reply?
Did he respond prudently, or did he allow his stupidity to sink himself deeper into the mire?
He looked happily into the pale blue eyes of Franz Deutscher and whispered, “Easter Monday.”

This again brings me back to the meditation on cowardice earlier in the book, as this is one of the few stupid acts committed by Rudy that could be considered genuinely brave, as he refuses to allow Deutscher the satisfaction of giving in to him. Deutscher has given Rudy the only position of power he can have, the power to defy him, and Rudy is more than willing to take it, and yet just as Hans only survived WWI due to his aforementioned “cowardice”, one can’t help but feel the sane, sensible reaction in terms of self-preservation would be to simply give Deutscher the complete satisfaction that he wants, but instead Rudy gets a haircut in addition to his humiliation and Zusak makes an annoyingly unnecessary parallel of this haircut, as an act of forced humiliation by an enemy, to the haircut Max received from Liesel earlier in the year, as an act of genuine friendship (unnecessary in that again the audience is more than capable of making this parallel ourselves).

As for Rudy, so far this year he’d swallowed mud, bathed himself in fertilizer, been half-strangled by a developing criminal, and was now receiving something at least nearing the icing on the cake-public humiliation on Munich Street.

Seriously, at first, it may have been shocking that Rudy died so young, but now I can’t help but feel he was lucky to make it this long. Is he really going to survive another TWO YEARS????? Because I have made it my whole life without experiencing any of those things (with the possible exception of public humiliation).

The chapter does, however, manage to leave Rudy on a bit of a positive note, as his third act of stupidity, skipping the Hitler Youth meetings, turns out to be the only one of these acts to exhibit any common sense or leave him in a better position. (“It was the one time in his life that his idiotic behavior delivered beneficial results.”) True, it’s a dangerous thing to do in this time period, but it also ensures he will avoid being in this stressful environment and risk any more hostile interactions with Deutscher. And ultimately, his brother convinces him to join a different division of the Hitler Youth, which teaches aircraft and flying, and the chapter ends with the suggestion that Rudy has experienced some genuine character growth, and in addition to being in a better place, is beginning to mature and accept what he can and cannot get away with:

In his new division, whenever he was asked the famous Führer question, Rudy would smile and answer, “April 20, 1889,” and then to Tommy, he’d whisper a different date, like Beethoven’s birthday, or Mozart’s, or Strauss’s. They’d been learning about composers in school, where despite his obvious stupidity, Rudy excelled.

It helps he doesn’t have a figure like Deutscher to challenge him here, but the last sentence adds a layer of depth in suggesting the difference between book smarts and street smarts, Rudy perhaps possessing more of the former than the latter, something I have to admit I can relate to myself.

THE FLOATING BOOK (Part II)

So now the part ends, right where it began, as you can tell from the title. And I honestly have little to say about this chapter, because everything mostly plays out exactly as I had predicted it would. The opening sentence even mentions that it is December, and Rudy will finally secure a victory, so it’s pretty clear what will happen next.

Liesel and Rudy are going home from school, and there is a small bit of misdirection as they have to avoid Franz Deutscher, but it’s pretty clear there’s not much more he can do to Rudy after having beaten and humiliated him in public already, so this isn’t too convincing, and…

With no further words, Liesel followed him, and they successfully avoided Rudy’s tormentor-straight into the path of another.

They predictably run into Viktor Chemmel and his group on the bridge, and one complaint I have about this is that the action doesn’t feel like it’s playing out naturally. We know everything that is going to happen, and the characters seem to basically act as marionettes, being pulled around by invisible strings and made to do exactly what Zusak wants them to and be exactly where he wants them to be. How likely is it, really, that Viktor and Deutscher would both randomly be wandering around Molching within the same vicinity of each other on the same day, for instance? It’s possible, but it feels contrived.

Viktor greets them by randomly calling Liesel a whore again (big surprise) and taking the book. He offers to sell it back to them for fifty marks, but as Andy Schmeikl points out, they could buy any number of books for that amount (including the same one he took) so this extortion attempt is beyond idiotic. He could also point out that Liesel and Rudy probably don’t have that much money even if they wanted to give it to him, but he doesn’t.

“Did I ask you to speak?”
Andy kept quiet. His mouth seemed to swing shut.

Markus Zusak, have you ever heard this saying before? “If you want respect, you must give respect to get it.” If this whole group is so spineless and cowardly they’re willing to acquiesce to the every demand of this rich prick who gives them no respect, how are they effective thieves who are willing to risk being chased by angry farmers with axes, anyway?

Liesel tried a poker face. “You can keep it, then. I’ve already read it.”
“What happens at the end?”
Damn it!
She hadn’t gotten that far yet.

Well, neither has Viktor, so I’m sure any lie she could come up with would sound convincing, but it doesn’t really matter. For as much as Zusak built up Viktor’s patience in getting back at Rudy, it seems clear he had no plan of exacting revenge against him at all, and spent none of those five months formulating one. He knows Rudy will be pained at seeing his friend intimidated and losing her book because of him, but that doesn’t change the fact that as Rudy points out, this act of revenge isn’t really against him at all, as it’s not his book, so Viktor is basically just impulsively being a prick. It’s not like the group is going to fall into submission after seeing Viktor take action against a person who didn’t question his authority. He’s just pointlessly harassing another member of the group who did nothing against him.

Stranger still is that Zusak never mentions Viktor and his gang leaving after he throws the book into the river, yet Rudy immediately runs down to retrieve it without even waiting for them to go. Inexplicably, Viktor makes no attempt to go after Rudy and stop him from getting it, either. (Also, tearing the book up and throwing the pages in one-by-one would have been more effective, and more of a prolonged punishment, as Rudy would have had to watch his friend’s prized property be destroyed for God knows how long.) He just vanishes from the narrative into a black hole, to wait until the next time it needs him to be a dick.

Another note of interest is that Rudy did not attempt to leave the devastatingly cold water as soon as he held the book in his hand. For a good minute or so, he stayed. He never did explain it to Liesel, but I think she knew very well that the reasons were twofold.

I would think the reason would obviously be to make sure Viktor isn’t hiding somewhere, waiting for the opportunity to ambush him and throw the book back in, but no. Zusak explains the real reason is he wants to revel in his victory and make himself appear pitiful and selfless, so Liesel will kiss him. But obviously she won’t, and Zusak does fittingly leave us on the tragic note he was building to all along:

He stood waist-deep in the water for a few moments longer before climbing out and handing her the book. His pants clung to him, and he did not stop walking. In truth, I think he was afraid. Rudy Steiner was scared of the book thief’s kiss. He must have longed for it so much. He must have loved her so incredibly hard. So hard that he would never ask for her lips again and would go to his grave without them.

That really is a good place to leave the book. I enjoyed this project (especially when I had readers) and I liked reading the book, too, and it’s possible I’ll finish the rest of the book on my own, but we’ve made it halfway through and I think ending on this note of dramatic irony is very fitting. I don’t know how long it will take me to finish the book if I keep dragging the project out, and seeing as how my readers have lost interest, I think it’s clear all good things must come to an end. To the few who enjoyed these posts, I say thank you. I hope you enjoyed revisiting the book as experienced by another person and getting to know my personality through my reviews. I don’t know if I will write any more reviews on here, but I say again, goodbye.

 

 

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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.

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.)