In the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of The Book Thief, the happiness that Death spoke so highly of begins to slowly leak away as Liesel is forced to deal with the fact that she will never see her mother again. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Book Thief.
CH. 15: THE TOWN WALKER
The rot started with the washing and it rapidly increased.
Well, all that joy couldn’t have lasted that long, right? In the next two chapters, that happiness starts to deteriorate in a way that even Hans cannot fix. At the center of it all are Liesel’s two mothers. Rosa’s own acerbic attitude begins to harm Liesel more than usual, spawned mostly by the rough economic situation the family is in.
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?”
To Liesel’s dismay, Mama was speechless.
An empty bag was at her side.
Come on, Liesel.
It was not said. It was pulled along, rough-handed.
What I worried would become problematic starts here. Rosa takes out her frustrations with her job washing and ironing on Liesel, particularly blaming her because she doesn’t get an allowance like that for taking Liesel in.
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.”
It’s weird how much I can relate to this. I was adopted just around my first birthday. And while I have no doubts about how much my Mom loved me (or does love me right now), I distinctly remember a time in my life when my mom would say similar things to me. I don’t think it’s indicative of adoptive parents at all, for the record. But my mom was always angry at something, and it was really common for her to either blame me or take that anger out on me.
Rosa decides that it’s time for Liesel to help out even more with her work and assigns her to start picking up and delivering the ironing and washing all by herself. Liesel, much like I did in the same situation, is quick to learn that it’s best if she is entirely obedient. Feelings or protestations don’t matter. You do as you are told all of the time. I especially related to this part:
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.
I’ve spoken of my desire for affection a few times in the past, but this is that experience spelled out: When I did exactly as I was told, and especially when I went above and beyond that, I expected this sort of welcoming affection. But I never got it. It was always anger and rage and distaste and passive-aggressive fury.
WHY DO I GRAVITATE TO THE SADDEST FICTIONAL CHARACTERS EVER.
Anyway, I like that Liesel at least gets to enjoy her freedom while on her daily trips of delivery, getting the chance to be free of Rosa’s anger and free to explore more of her neighborhood, especially the cast of characters that live there. Of course, are any of you surprised that Death uses lists to describe these characters and that I love him for that? Because that is the least surprising thing imaginable.
School has settled down for Liesel, though it soon provides a point of conflict and pain for her when Sister Maria assigns the students a new project: to write two letters, one to a friend and one to someone else in class. (I laughed at the letter Rudy wrote Liesel.) For Liesel, though, writing a letter to a friend or classmate isn’t enough. She’s inspired to do something different for her assignment:
“Would I be able to write a letter to Mama?”
“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.
Oh. Oh. Oh, boy. This is going to be fun, isn’t it?
Hans doesn’t seem to have any reason to dissuade her from such a notion, so he agrees, even suggesting that she send it to the foster people who brought her to the Hubermanns.
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. The next day, she posted it at Frau Diller’s with a stamp from the kitchen drawer. And she began to wait.
That sense of hope is quickly and brutally smashed that night, but not at all in an angry way. This may be the first time in the book so far, but Rosa seems genuinely concerned about the prospect of Liesel writing to her mother. She says something I found unsettling:
“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?”
In bed, Liesel hugged herself tight. She balled herself up. She thought of her mother and repeated Rosa Hubermann’s questions.
Where was she?
What had they done to her?
And once and for all, who, in actual fact, were they?
So what aren’t we being told about Liesel and her mother? I feel like some crucial detail has been left out of the story.
Ugh, DO NOT WANT.
CH. 16: DEAD LETTERS
If the previous chapter was about setting up the anguish to come, then this one is all about delivering it. We’re given another glimpse of the future, late in 1943:
A fourteen-year-old girl is writing in a small dark-covered book. She is bony but strong and has seen many things. Papa sits with the accordion at his feet.
He says, “You know, Liesel? I nearly wrote you a reply and signed your mother’s name.” He scratches his leg, where the plaster used to be. “But I couldn’t. I couldn’t bring myself.”
I was previously irritated at this technique, of showing us the future so blatantly, but I’m starting to see how this is an interesting way of telling the story, of gaining my interesting and framing how I should see all of this. Of course, with this introduction, my first question is, “What is he talking about?”
Zusak is quick to answer that:
Several times, through the remainder of January and the entirety of February 1940, when Liesel searched the mailbox for a reply to her letter, it clearly broke her foster father’s heart.
Liesel receives no reply from her mother. No sign that she is alive, or remembers Liesel, or that she even cares about her daughter. To make matters worse, the Hubermann household does get a letter, but it is from the Pfaffelhürvers, telling Rosa that they can no longer pay for her services.
It just gets worse and worse.
There’s no birthday celebration for Liesel, no gifts because the family cannot afford them. However, Liesel is not deterred by this; she’s a surprisingly understanding child.
Liesel didn’t mind. She didn’t whine or moan or stamp her feet. 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.
Unfortunately, Liesel acts out this birthday gift to herself and it doesn’t take Rosa long figure this out. Rosa’s response wasn’t necessarily surprising, but the ferocity of it was hard to read for me. If you remember from my review on Monday, my mom was a big fan of using kitchen utensils to hit me, so reading through this section was like SERIOUSLY KIND OF TRAUMATIC. It’s also harder to read because I had initially believed that Hans would be the first to abuse his foster daughter, but this proved that thought wrong. This part, though, made it worse:
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.
And that shame and disappointment is so much more powerful than the physical beating that Rosa gave her. Rosa, on the other hand, has a rare moment of letting her guard down:
Above her, Rosa appeared to be smudged, but she soon clarified as her cardboard face loomed closer. Dejected, she stood there in all her plumpness, holding the wooden spoon at her side like a club. She reached down and leaked a little. “I’m sorry, Liesel.”
Liesel knew her well enough to understand that it was not for the hiding.
It’s not spelled out, but I wonder if Rosa is apologizing less for her own actions than the situation, one where Liesel is punished for trying to contact her mother, and where Rosa feels obligated to do so because they are poor. Or maybe Rosa, too, realizes the hopelessness of it all and is sorry for Liesel’s growing shame.
There’s a unique call back to the first time Liesel arrived at the Hubermann residence, when she refused to get out of the car until Hans was able to coax her out. She remains still underneath the table and it’s only Hans’s accordion playing that brings her out from her spot. Still, I have to wonder how much this moment is going to hurt Liesel. Is she going to stop writing her mother, too? The memories of her mother are no longer quite as painful as they were and Liesel even goes on to admit to herself that she doesn’t hold animosity for either Rosa or her mother. But her life is still surrounded with the darkness of it, of being abandoned, of being abused, of the music coming from Hans’s accordion.
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?
What does this mean for Liesel? I don’t quite understand it yet.
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.
Oh boy. What happened to Liesel’s mother? DEATH, YOU ARE TEASING ME.