In the ninth chapter of The Book Thief, we learn what Rudy Steiner did in the infamous Jesse Owens Incident. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Book Thief.
Mom, I want to be Prince Eric.
My mom was on the other side of the counter bar, shuffling thick slices of bread in a frying pan, the oil popping and cracking dutifully. Her hair was longer then, not as sharp as the latter days when she would die it a vibrant red or a sharp magenta orange color. She wore that same Taco John’s apron from her years working as a manager at a location in downtown Boise, a place I always wanted to visit. When she wore that apron, it was a sign to us that she meant business, in a literal and metaphorical sense. Sometimes, we knew she was heading to work and we might get lucky if she brought us back some churros or Potato Olés, those crispy potato disks I loved so much. Or, in this case, it meant that she was busy, and asking her mundane questions or making absurd request would generally earn a response of silence or scorn. I was about to get the latter.
“Mark, he’s not real. You’re not a Prince.”
No, I’m pretty sure I’m him, I told my mom. We have the same color hair. He’s totally the same.
“Mark, he’s a cartoon,” she replied, turning to face me, a plate of French toast in her hand. She plopped it down on the counter in front of me as I excitedly twisted my stool chair back and forth, making it squeak.
Squeak squeak squeak squeak. Mom, I think I’m related to him. Squeak squeak squeak squeak. Remember when you told me I was adopted and we didn’t know my dad? It’s Prince Eric.
Mom turned back from the crackling pan of my brother’s toast. He was nowhere in sight. “You have to be joking me.”
Squeak squeak squeak. No, I think it’s totally true. Prince Eric is my father.
She sighed and turned away again. “No, that’s not how it works, Mark. Maurice is your father.” She turned back, correcting me with the spatula directed at my face. “And just because he has black hair does not mean he is related to you. Eat your goddamn toast.”
Squeak squeak squeak. I need syrup, Mom, I said. Squeak squeak. And if Prince Eric were here he would probably get me a gallon of syrup.
I pushed a bit too hard. Silently, steaming, my mom got that giant jug of Mrs. Butterworth’s I worshipped so much and slammed it on the counter, quickly turning away from me. I felt the heat rush to my cheeks and I knew I’d upset her and I didn’t like when she was upset. She would start yelling soon.
Thanks for the French toast, Mom, I offered.
Silence. Then. Squeak squeak squeak.
She rushed around, that spatula shining with oil, and she rapped the back of my left hand with it and I recoiled in terror, the squeaking stopped, and I sat, enraptured by the furious gaze being sent my way.
“You listen to me,” she said, in that tone that was way too loud and way too certain. “You are not Prince Eric. You are not related to that fool. It is a cartoon. I am your mother. Maurice is your father. I don’t want to hear another word of it today or anytime else again. Ok?”
Silence. Then. The sound of my fork slowly tearing apart my toast as I felt the tears brim on my eyelids and I fought back saying anything again.
“You don’t know what I went through to get you,” my mom continued, only this time she was talking to my brother’s toast. “You don’t know how hard it was and you don’t know what I gave up and you don’t know what I sacrificed. You are mine and you always will be.”
I didn’t understand what she was saying. I was eight. And Prince Eric was the first person I’d seen who even resembled my twin brother and I, our shiny, jet black hair, and our fuzzy eyebrows and our lanky bodies. Despite that my mother wanted me to so desperately let go, I held on to the thought, deep inside, but I never shared it.
Mom, can we see Aladdin again today?
We were in Ford Aerostar, the one my mom would own for over a decade, and I was alone in the backseat, my brother and sister in front of me. It was a Saturday, a familiar December weekend for Riverside, bitterly cold and windy, but the promise of being able to leave the house, even if it was to accompany my mom on a shopping trip, was a brief sign of hope. I wasn’t allowed out in those days and many of the years to come. “You’ll get beat up,” my mom would say, or sometimes she’d give me, “There’s a man waiting to kidnap and molest you in every park,” even though those days would involve lonely jaunts in a park utterly devoid of anyone besides my father and brother playing catch and my sister putting about on her Big Wheel. I never got a Big Wheel. They were too dangerous. I’d hurt myself and break my legs or my arms. My sister was allowed one. She was three and a half years younger than me.
Some days my mom would tell me I didn’t deserve to go outside of the house because I hadn’t lived up to her expectations. I didn’t get an A+. I didn’t win the Spelling Bee. I didn’t come in first place in the Science Fair. One more reason after another, compounding in my heart, making me start to believe that these things were real, that my mother’s suspicions and fears had to be based on some sort of truth.
This day, however, I was allowed to come with her to the mall. I might get a new shirt, but I doubted it. But maybe I’d get to see things I liked and stare at them, like the giant LEGO castle in the window of KB Toys. I’d really like that, but I knew not to ask for it for this Christmas. My mom couldn’t afford it. We only had a few Christmas celebrations where I bounded out of bed to presents underneath a tree, a bountiful wave of materialistic joy. This would not be one of them, but if I got the chance to leave my stuffy home off of Tyler Street, I would take it. It was a glimpse at freedom.
“No, we can’t see Aladdin. I have shopping to do for a few friends and some of your relatives. And you’ve already seen it twice,” she stated. “You don’t need to see it again.”
My sister wasn’t paying attention. She was playing some battery-powered game involving ninjas that I wasn’t allowed to have because it would rot my brain. My brother was cycling through a handful of football trading cards, their glossy surfaces reflecting just so if the sunlight pouring in through the van’s windows hit them just right. I wasn’t going to get any support from either of them.
I absently joined the seatbelt next to me together. Unbuckled. Buckled. Unbuckled. Mom, can I ask you something?
“I’m not buying you anything today.”
No, no, not that. I’m not asking you for something.
“Oh.” She was surprised. Which made no sense. I didn’t ask her for things. She knew that.
Mom, do you think I’m Egyptian?
I felt the van jolt slightly to one side and my mom’s emerald eyes flicked upwards to meet mine in the rear view mirror. “Why would you say such a thing?”
I was just thinking…you know. Because of Aladdin. He looks so much like me! We have the same skin color and the same hair and I’ve never seen anyone like him before.
My mom just laughed in response, but it was not a laugh of joy or silliness. “Mark, you know nothing of the world. That’s not how it works. Remember when you thought Prince Eric was your father? Now you’re related to Aladdin? That’s just stupid.”
Ok, I didn’t mean I’m related to him. I just meant what I was born as.
Those green eyes returned to the mirror. “You were born as my son, Mark,” my mom said much more forcefully. “And you are white.”
I’d never heard her say that, but it confused me. What do you mean?
You’re not Egyptian or Arabic or Mexican or anything else. You are white, just like me.
But Mom, my skin is so dark. How is that possible?
I was met with silence. No eyes in the mirror, and now I was aware that my brother and sister were both staring at me, giving me that look. Now you’ve done it, they were saying. Now you’ve made her mad. And we all knew that whomever upset our mom deserved scorn from the rest of us.
We pulled into the Galleria after what seemed like an eternity in bitter silence. My mom did this thing when she pulled into parking lots with a large number of cars. She’d ask her guardian angel for help, to find a spot as close as possible to the entrance. It always seemed so arrogant to me, maybe even a waste of a metaphysical being if that being had a maximum usage limit. Using your own personally assigned angel for parking? Despite that, far more often than not, it worked. She’d find someone pulling out right next to the handicapped spot or she’d find a spot by the exit door, and she would thank her angel and never question the process again.
My mom did no such thing today. She said nothing. She pulled into the nearest spot to the parking lot entrance, a hike to the mall, and she got out silently. I knew I’d done it. My brother pulled open the sliding side door and he and my sister poured out without protest. But as I slid from the back to seat to move out of the door, my mom slid into view, blocking my exit.
“You are white.”
I stared at her face, the creases forming into her forehead, and her eyes boring into mine, and I shivered. I couldn’t help it. I’d always tremble when she got this way.
“You are white. You are not some dirty Arab or Mexican and I will not have a son who expects life to give him handouts.”
What? What are you talking about?
“You are as white as a piece of paper. I am not going to listen to you insist you are anything else.”
Mom, but I am so dark! I don’t get it.
The fury boiled in her eyes. “You don’t want to be anything else. I want you to go to a good school and get a good job and be successful and I don’t want you to grow up with some chip on your shoulder or having a disadvantage working against you or have the world treat you as anything than what you are. You are white, Mark! You are fucking white.”
I stared at her, the heat in my face again, and the terror swelling in my chest. I was just saying, Mom, I’m sorry.
“That’s just not how the world works,” my mom said, backing away from the door, the light flooding the interior. “You don’t know how the world works. You are not anything like that cartoon character and you’d be best to learn that as soon as possible.
I stepped out of the car, my brother staring at me with a wistful gaze, and my sister absently grabbed my mother’s hand and began to trot away. I shut the van door, hearing the click of the lock, knowing that despite the lecture I’d just received, I knew even less about the world than I had just a few minutes before.
A few notes about this chapter. I don’t normally include this after I get to do some storytelling (which I haven’t done in a while!), but there are still a few things/themes that I couldn’t address in my story about learning about race as a child.
First of all, as Muave Avenger pointed out in the comments Friday’s review of chapter eight, Zusak has slightly altered the reality of Jesse Owens’s story. Hitler did not refuse to shake Owens’s hand. On the first day of the games, Hitler had only shaken the hands of the German victors, and Olympic committee officials had ordered that Hitler shake all victors’ hands or none of them at all. He chose the latter, which is why Owens did not get his hand shook. (Muave said that it was Cornelius Johnson, the winner of the high jump, who was snubbed that first day, but I can’t seem to find specific evidence of it yet, so if anyone has more concrete info on the exact order of events, I will totally update this and include it here.)
I also love the way that Rudy’s actual incident is narrated so much closer here, especially with him imagining that there is an actual crowd of spectators chanting his name. I’m actually intrigued how this is going to play out for Rudy and what role it will take in his life.
Finally, the bolded section, THE CONTRADICTORY POLITICS OF ALEX STEINER, is probably my favorite aside of Death’s so far, as it clearly demonstrates how his family’s privilege for looking the way they do operates, especially in an internal sense. Alex’s actions are not motivated out of hate. He does not have any explicit hate of Jews or minorities. What goes through his head is far more casual, as outlined in Point Two, and it’s his mental acceptance of the positive business aspects that demonstrates how racism and prejudice can even influence the subtlest of ideas in a person. Despite that Alex has that “itch” in his heart that he knows this is wrong and that he is wrong, his privileged situation allows him to ignore it.
Brilliant chapter. I’m enjoying this book a great deal.