In the twelfth chapter of The Book Thief, Hans becomes more upset at the turn of world events, and Liesel stands up to the students who bully her at school. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Book Thief.
I get the feeling that by framing this book under the dark clouds of World War II, this story is going to have a lot of emotional parallels to what’s going on during this historical period. Since we started part one, things have been relatively calm for Liesel and her knew family. I suppose it’s mostly due to Zusak needing some sort of expository period to introduce characters, the narrator, and plant the seeds for later plots and themes that will be developed. This chapter, however, feels like the start of something more, a subtle impending doom about to envelop the narrative. Fall rolls around, and that means the start of rationing and the start of World War II, which obviously wasn’t called that at the time.
This uniquely affects Hans Hubermann in a way that I still don’t quite understand. After taking the day’s paper home and having it sweat inside his shirt, he finds that it left a full imprint on the inside of his shirt.
“What does it say?” Liesel asked him. She was looking back and forth, from the black outlines on his skin to the paper.
“’Hitler takes Poland,’” he answered, and Hans Hubermann slumped into a chair. “Deutchsland über Alles,” he whispered, and his voice was not remotely patriotic.
The face was there again—his accordion face.
So why the face? I would understand it more if this was the first time it was introduced. But why did he make this face while playing the accordion to Liesel at Amper? What is he worried or upset about?
We’re not given any answer. Hmmm. I don’t get it.
The second part of chapter twelve deals specifically with Liesel’s problems at school. I don’t need to tell the stories again, but I was bullied extensively during elementary, middle, and high school, ruthlessly so, and there were many days I wish I had channeled my rage in a way that Liesel does here. I’ve always been a pacifist; not even necessarily by some moral high ground, either but because I’ve never known how to fight. I’ve still never gotten in a fight in my whole life. (At 27, I feel like that is a feat of some sort. I fight with words.) I don’t think I’d ever go out of my way to condone violence of this sort, but there was something immensely satisfying in reading about Liesel’s attack on Ludwig Schmeikl.
Finally moved up to her proper grade, Liesel’s anxiety about school is tested yet again during a progress test in the beginning of November. This specific test involves reading in front of the entire class and despite that Liesel has been doing better with her papa, it’s still not an easy concept for her to face.
A halo surrounded the grim reaper nun, Sister Maria. (By the way—I like this human idea of the grim reaper. I like the scythe. It amuses me.)
Clearly, Death looks different. How does Death look by the way? Don’t answer that
Throughout the test, Liesel sat with a mixture of hot anticipation and excruciating fear. She wanted desperately to measure herself, to find out once and for all how her learning was advancing. Was she up to it? Could she even come close to Rudy and the rest of them?
Has Liesel even read anything aside from The Grave Digger’s Handbook, by the way? If not, this might be a disaster. Well…ok, it does end up being a bit of disaster anyway, but not as I expected. First of all, Sister Maria flat out skips Liesel, announcing that the progress reports in reading are done.
A voice practically appeared on the other side of the room. Attached to it was a lemon-haired boy whose bony knees knocked in his pants under the desk. He stretched his hand up and said, “Sister Maria, I think you forgot Liesel.
Was not impressed.
OH SNAP. Who is this boy, by the way? TATTLE TALE. Oh, wait, that would probably have been me at that time. OK NEVERMIND, NO JUDGING ALLOWED.
She plonked her folder on the table in front of her and inspected Rudy with sighing disapproval.
OH SHIT. Rudy?!?!?! Ok, back to judging. Actually, that’s kind of hilarious to me. STILL. Rudy. What are you even doing.
When Sister Maria tells the class that Liesel will read for her later, in private, Liesel doesn’t seem to agree with the concept too much, making me believe that Rudy specifically trolled her, knowing she’d do just this. So she states aloud that she can do her test right now. And she stands up. And she walks to the front of the room. And she flips the book to a random page. And she imagined herself “reading the entire page in faultless, fluency-filled triumph.
A KEY WORD
So, it doesn’t quite go as she planned it in her head. Whilst imagining this victorious conclusion to her test, Liesel stands in silence in front of her own class, the words blurring together and confusion taking hold inside of her. So she does what she can and what she knows:
She reads The Grave Digger’s Handbook. From memory. God I love Liesel. It gets her in trouble and she’s the subject of a lot of laughing from the other students, but it’s a wonderful moment to me. I love that she goes to the first thing that gives her comfort: the book her father is helping her read.
Unfortunately, the taunting doesn’t just stop at laughing. Ludwig Schmeikl starts it off, teasing her, asking her to read a word, then calls her an idiot. The momentous force of childhood bullying grows quickly at this point, reaching nineteen comments during her break from class. Nineteen! So when Ludwig comes back around, Liesel breaks. And her fury is actually a bit frightening:
Well, as you might imagine, Ludwig Schmeikl certainly buckled, and on the way down, he was punched in the ear. When he landed, he was set upon. When he was set upon, he was slapped and clawed and obliterated by a girl who was utterly consumed with rage. His skin was so warm and soft. Her knuckles and fingernails were so frighteningly tough, despite their smallness. “You Saukerl.” Her voice, too, was able to scratch him. “You Arschloch. Can you spell Arschloch for me?”
HOLY SHIT. Again, this would never work for me. That’s for a couple reasons. First of all, I never stood up to my bullies. Ever. Well, I suppose I tried, but whatever I said would be thrown back at me and used to further pick on me. Hell, maybe I was just really bad at standing up for myself. As I said before, I’m also completely awful at fighting, or at least I imagine myself to be. I think if I got in a fight I would probably run away. Yeah! Because I’m fast! That would work. I AM AWESOME.
Oh, how the clouds stumbled in and assembled stupidly in the sky.
Great obese clouds.
Dark and plump.
Bumping into each other. Apologizing. Moving on and finding room.
Death is a poet in his off time, isn’t he? I forget that he’s narrating every so often, and then a passage like this comes up, which I love, and then I remember that someone is telling us this story. I suppose it’s kind of weird, but I still like the way this is written.
Anyway, back to Liesel being a bad ass. As she continues to wail on Ludwig, she spots Tommy Müller staring at her and begins to beat him up, too, for no reason other than the fact that he was smiling. Then I didn’t feel too great about what Liesel was doing. She was going out of control. But for her, it feels like she was asserting herself to all of these students. She even proclaims to all of them, “I am not stupid,” and no one protests. The thing is, we’ve never seen her like this. The only parallel I could draw or think of was when she first met the Hubermanns and Liesel refused to get out of the car or take a bath. That’s more stubbornness and shock than anything else, though, and here we see her so full of rage that it’s actually pretty scary.
Even Sister Maria is unusually shocked that Liesel is behind the double beating as well, giving her a brutal spanking in response.
At the end of the school day, Liesel walked home with Rudy and the other Steiner children. Nearing Himmel Street, in a hurry of thoughts, a culmination of misery swept over her—the failed recital of The Grave Digger’s Handbook, the demolition of her family, her nightmares, the humiliation of the day—and she crouched in the gutter and wept.
Ugh, please do not cry and be overwhelmed, YOU ARE MAKING ME SAD. Rudy, thankfully, silently waits with Liesel as the rain returns.
“Why did he have to die?” she asked, but still, Rudy did nothing; he said nothing.
When finally she finished and stood herself up, he put his arm around her, best-buddy style, and they walked on. There was no request for a kiss. Nothing like that. You can love Rudy for that, if you like.
WELL, I WILL. There. DONE.
Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like the rain.
GORGEOUS SENTENCE. And here, at the end of part one, we get a glimpse of the future, though it’s a tiny one. Reading and writing is going to play a larger part in Liesel’s life.