In the tenth and eleventh chapters of The Book Thief, Liesel’s accidental bedwetting inspires Hans not only to spend more time with his foster daughter, but to begin to teach her to read. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Book Thief.
CHAPTER 10: THE OTHER SIDE OF SANDPAPER
Zusak returns us to the world of the Hubermanns after spending time with Rudy Steiner, and I’m reminded again why I like Hans so much. He is the perfect father figure for Liesel and this chapter is proof of that. I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I may not have had the most positive influence as a child and mistakes like those Liesel makes would be met with the same fury Rosa gives her.
The chapter opens with a scene of the NSDAP marching in the brown shirts down Himmel Street, a source of the nightmares Liesel will later have that lead her to wet her bed. I’m intrigued that Death states that Hans is one of the 10% who does provide “unflinching support” for Adolf Hitler, only because he says, “There was a reason for that,” and then doesn’t provide that reason.
Regardless, what’s more important is that those images of marching brown shirts begin to invade Liesel’s dreams, and one of those dreams in spring of 1939 causes her to wet her bed for the first time. The shame that’s mixed with the terror of the situation causes Liesel to be reluctant to share with her Papa what has happened, but Hans is a very gentle, understanding father for her.
“We take the sheets off,” Papa said, and when he reached under and pulled at the fabric, something loosened and landed with a thud. A black book with silver writing on it came hurtling out and landed on the floor, between the tall man’s feet.
Hans is very matter-of-fact about this all. (He talks in a similar manner to Death’s narration, for what it’s worth.) He picks up the book, reads the title aloud, and simply asks if the book is Liesel’s. When she confirms, he asks if she wants to read it.
Again, “Yes, Papa.”
A tired smile. Metallic eyes, melting.
“Well, we’d better read it, then.”
Thus begins the “midnight lessons” that Death mentioned earlier. (Another sidenote: Death has a penchant for telling us later story points, almost as if he can’t resist “spoiling” us for what is to come. OMG DEATH, USE SPOILER TAGS, PLZ.) This is also the very first moment that Death doesn’t just summarize the story, but we actually get to read some of the words that she later writes. (SEE? HE IS SPOILING US OMG.)
You wouldn’t think it, she wrote, but it was not so much the school who helped me read. It was Papa. People think he’s not so smart, and it’s true that he doesn’t read too fast, but I would soon learn words and writing actually saved his life once. Or at least, words and a man who taught him the accordian….
Man, this book sure teases us a lot with the future. YOU ARE MAKING ME FAR TOO INTRIGUED.
The book that Liesel decided to hang on to is not necessarily the best reading material for a child’s first book, but it doesn’t dissuade Hans from using it to teach her to read. He asks her why she held on to such a morbid book, but how does a child explain that it’s the only thing tying them to their dead brother and the mother who abandoned her? Hans doesn’t need this explanation, though, because he’s ready to jump right in it with a healthy sense of humor intact:
He ran a hand through his sleepy hair and said, “Well, promise me one thing, Liesel. If I die anytime soon, you make sure they bury me right.”
Bless his heart.
And so the two of them begin to read The Grave Digger’s Handbook. It proves to be a bit more advanced than Hans’s own reading skills, but still he presses on. He also realizes it’s going to be a lot harder than he expected when he learns that Liesel can only read variations of a single word in German: “the.”
Instead, he starts her off at the beginning. He helps her with the alphabet. In one of the more touching scenes of this novel, Hans works his way, one letter at a time, through the German alphabet, asking Liesel what each letter is that he draws and a word that starts with it. When she guesses correctly, he will draw that object for her.
As they progressed through the alphabet, Liesel’s eyes grew larger. She had done this at school, in the kindergarten class, but this time was better. She was the only one there, and she was not gigantic. It was nice to watch Papa’s hand as he wrote the words and slowly constructed the primitive sketches.
I was always the sort of student who could quietly learn in a classroom of thirty to forty students. I learned pretty early on not to raise my hand often to answer the teacher’s questions because that identified me as both someone people could come to to bully me into doing their homework or someone people could just plain bully. (Yes, I was seriously Hermione as a child/teenager. SO INSUFFERABLE AT TIMES.) But when I couldn’t learn or figure something out, it was exactly this style of personal teaching that always worked best for me. Hans is absolutely fantastic at this, too:
“Ah, come on, Liesel,” he said when she struggled later on. “Something that starts with S. It’s easy. I’m very disappointed in you.”
She couldn’t think.
“Come on!” His whisper played with her. “Think of Mama.”
That was when the word struck her face like a slap. A reflex grin. “SAUMENSCH!” she shouted, and Papa roared with laughter, then quieted.
“Shhh, we have to be quiet.” But he roared all the same and wrote the word, completing it with one of his sketches.
AND THEN WE GET A PICTURE OF SAID SKETCH. Oh my god, it is amazing. Is this in the actual copies of the book, too? (I’m using an e-reader.)
“Papa!” she whispered. “I have no eyes!”
He patted the girl’s hair. She’d fallen into his trap. “With a smile like that,” Hans Hubermann said, “you don’t need eyes.” He hugged her and then looked again at the picture, with a face of warm silver.
SERIOUSLY. THIS MAN IS AMAZING.
Chapter ten ends with another one of my favorite images, as the two end their first midnight study session. With the promise to play accordian the next day, Hans leaves for the night:
He switched off the light, came back, and sat in the chair. In the darkness, Liesel kept her eyes open. She was watching the words.
For me, that was the joy of books as well. They stayed with me long after I was done. In particular, I would spend nights pretending I was asleep for an hour or two, and then pull out my mini-flashlight and make a small tent under my blanket and begin to read. And when I finally became too drowsy to continue, I’d lay in bed, facing the ceiling, words floating by.
CHAPTER 11: THE SMELL OF FRIENDSHIP
Zusak makes an interesting distinction here and one I’m hoping is going to prove to be valuable to the larger story. As Liesel and her Papa continue lessons at the end of spring and into summer, always late at night, the two of them obviously grow closer. But Hans makes an important decision weeks into their lessons: He decides that Liesel is not going to go with Rosa to deliver her ironing this particular afternoon. She is going to come with him to practice reading.
Rosa, naturally, is completely flabbergasted by the suggestion. (Do her and Hans really not communicate much at all?) She demands Liesel and balks at the idea that Hans could ever teach Liesel anything about reading.
The kitchen waited. Papa counterpunched. “We’ll take your ironing for you.”
“You filthy—“ She stopped. The words propped in her mouth as she considered it. “Be back before dark.”
HAHAHAHAHA. Just like that. I love it. In a moment of excitement, Hans tells Liesel what things she needs to collect for their first daytime lessons. As they walk away from Himmel Street towards Amper, Rosa watches them with concern, yelling at Liesel to hold the ironing straight, to wear warm clothing, and Hans and Liesel seem like children escaping their overbearing mother. It’s the first sign of what Zusak does to these characters that’s spelled out at the end, especially when Hans asks Liesel to roll a cigarette for him.
After delivering the ironing, the spend a wonderful afternoon reading and teaching, and when night begins to fall, Hans pulls out his accordion to play for Liesel. But this confused me:
There had been a change in him. A slight shift.
She saw it but didn’t realize until later, when all the stories came together. She didn’t see him watching as he played, having no idea that Hans Hubermann’s accordion was a story. In the times ahead, that story would arrive at 33 Himmel Street in the early hours of the morning, wearing ruffled shoulders and a shivering jacket. It would carry a suitcase a book, and two questions. A story. Story after story. Story within story.
Ok, what are you talking about. I don’t understand this at all. I can’t even decipher what this means. SPOILER TAGS, DEATH. PLZ.
The lessons continue, problems and all. Hans sometimes would get frustrated with Liesel’s pace, and sometimes they’d have to read by kerosene lamp in the basement. That’s because of Hans:
“Rosa,” Hans said to her at one point. Quietly, his words cut through one of her sentences. “Could you do me a favor?”
She looked up from the stove. “What?”
“I’m asking you, I’m begging you, could you please shut your mouth for just five minutes?”
You can imagine the reaction.
They ended up in the basement.
WELL, OOPS. But those basement sessions spawned a new form of learning: painting. Using Hans’s paint brushes, Liesel is allowed to paint words she can spell aloud on the wall:
After a month, the wall was recoated. A fresh cement page.
Such a lovely image.
So, I brought up the fact that Zusak makes an important distinction about Liesel and Hans’s relationship in chapter eleven, and it’s planted all the way at the end of this chapter:
“You stink,” Mama would say to Hans. “Like cigarettes and kerosene.”
Sitting in the water, she imagined the smell of it, mapped out on her papa’s clothes. More than anything, it was the smell of friendship, and she could find it on herself, too. Liesel loved that smell. She would sniff her arm and smile as the water cooled around her.
Liesel and Hans are friends. Not just foster father and foster daughter. They are friends. I don’t know many people who describe their parents explicitly as friends, but there truly is something pure and simple about the love and respect these two have for each other. They are best friends and it’s really beautiful, especially after the trauma Liesel has been through. In fact, she hasn’t mentioned her mother in a long while either.
It’s just feels like a good place for her to be in.