Mark Reads ‘The Book Thief’: Chapters 15-16

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?”

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.

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.

About Mark Reads

Vegan cyclist, Internet community nerd, atheist bookworm, high-five purveyor.
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42 Responses to Mark Reads ‘The Book Thief’: Chapters 15-16

  1. jennywildcat says:

    I've read books that have used the "When Character A looked back on this experience some years later…" technique, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I think in the disjointed narrative style with this book, it works out fairly well. I mean, all we know from that little tidbit at the beginning of Chapter 16 here is that Liesel and Hans will be alive in 1943, but that doesn't mean that they won't have gone through some pretty bad things.

    Ugh. ALL THE SADS (and it's only going to get worse).

  2. There's heartbreak all around in this chapter. It makes me feel so sad for everyone. For Hans, who feels helpless and unable to help Liesel. For Liesel, who doesn't understand why her mother's gone. For Rosa, at that moment of realizing that Liesel had NOT simply stolen from her, but there was nothing she could do to take that beating back.____And yet, even this chapter is tempered with smiles. Rudy's first letter to Liesel, followed by the absurdity and un-Rudiness of his second, more proper letter to her: I smile just thinking about it.

  3. monkeybutter says:

    I'm pretty sure Rosa was apologizing for the situation, because it was after Liesel's emotional Watschen, not the first physical one. She definitely sees Liesel's hopelessness, and the only tenderness she's shown before now was about the futility of Liesel writing to her mother. It probably would have been a good idea to talk to Liesel about her mom, rather than let it get to this point.

    Money troubles are stressful, and kids are an easy target. It's not right. I'm sorry, Mark.

    Oh, and Rudy. Writing Saumensch anywhere near Sister Maria, and proposing to take Rosa's money to buy candy? What is going on in your head?

    • cait0716 says:

      I was so proud of Liesel for refusing to steal the money. Harry totally would have bought candy and gotten caught by Snape and weaseled out of it somehow. I like that Liesel has some concept of consequences, even though it's because they're so extreme

  4. cait0716 says:

    This book is breaking my heart. The inevitable tragedy of it all. And the way it's all unfolding piece by piece. The fact that Rosa's customer's didn't leave all at once, but one by one. That Liesel wrote so many letters to her mom before finally accepting that she'll never hear from her again. And all the little glimpses into Rosa's quiet despair – being left speechless, leaking. Leaking was such a good image. Rosa wouldn't sob or weep or cry, that isn't her. But a few tears escaped without her permission. Perfection.

    I adore the non-linearity of the story telling. All the little glimpses of past and future centered on the present. Is anyone else reminded of HIMYM? We all know what's going to happen, but the point is seeing the characters go on this journey

  5. Erg, strange formatting error in my first comment. Alas.

    But I also wanted to say that it's interesting how different life experiences so strongly influence the way we read and feel about events–real or fictional. I never had much of a problem with the way Rosa treats Liesel throughout much of this portion of the book. Obviously the beating is difficult to read, even when viewed in the context of what Rosa was thinking–that Liesel just stole some of the very small amount of money they had. But gruffly having Liesel take over the pick-up and delivery duties didn't seem problematic to me. Parents put their kids to work. Some do it more than others, and it was definitely more common a few decades ago. And Rosa does make a good point that people will be less likely to stop employing her if they've got to deliver that news to a skinny, pale little girl. Practical thinking, that.

    But yes, if I imagine reading all this from the perspective of someone who had an upbringing more difficult than mine, I can see how a lot of what goes on in this chapter is unsettling.

    • Back then it was common for children to have to work hard in poor families, so I agree with this. There weren't child labour laws when a family was facing starvation. I don't like the beating, but I can't imagine the betrayal she felt when she thought Liesel had stolen from the food they needed to live.

  6. Ida says:

    I think the scariest thing for a child who grows up in a dictatorship of whatever kind is the prospect of THEY, something Zusak brings up here. Liesel of course knows of nothing else than the dictatorship; she is too young to remember anything besides it. For her this is what the world looks like. But then there are THEY. THEY can come and get people, and these people disappear. THEY are everywhere, watching. And you don't know who THEY are. Who could tell her? Talking about them will bring them there. THEY have no name and no face. It's like the Boogeyman, you know, with the difference that when you fear the Boogeyman, your parents can tell you that he doesn't exist, that he can't hurt you, that you're safe as long as they are here. But these people are real, and they can hurt you. And they can take your parents away from you. And they will not go away when you're older. In this case they did, of course, but who could that at this time in history?

    • Ida says:

      Hey, I was first! That has NEVER happened before. :)

      I'd like to mention that I started reading the book, for the second time, some days ago and of course I didn't have the strenght of will to read two chapters a day. I am impressed that you manage to.

  7. LisBAMF Salander says:

    WHY DO I GRAVITATE TO THE SADDEST FICTIONAL CHARACTERS EVER.

    You're not alone, Mark. I absolutely adore Liesel and sometimes I wished that I could reach into the book and hug her.
    I also tend to gravitate towards compassionate characters like Hans Hubermann. Because I, too, longed for some parental affection.
    I really like when Rosa says "I'm sorry" in this chapter. When I first read this book, I had a strong dislike for this woman, but it would be moments like this that would make me say, I guess she's not so bad.

  8. stellaaaaakris says:

    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.
    Death, I would have appreciated a little future spoiler here. You're always spoiling, why did you restrain yourself this time?

    I'm just going to concentrate on the happy things. I'm sure there will be too much sad for me to handle in not too long, for now I just want to think about those little bits of happy. I completely related to Leisel's swinging of the laundry bag. Whenever I'm told not to do something, I get such a desire to do it, even just the once. And when no one's around, I have to act on it, whether that means swinging a bag or dancing while walking my dog.

    And Rudy continues to win my heart. Why wouldn't he begin his letter to his bestie with "Dear Saumensch"? I often do the same thing with my friends and especially my brother. Sister Maria, stop trying to stomp out his awesomeness.

  9. Emily Crnk says:

    Death's narrative style kind of reminds me of Joseph Heller in Catch 22, (OMG favorite book ever) the way that the story skips back and forth, kind of winding its way to the conclusion. Although Catch 22 was just a little more convoluted…

    • monkeybutter says:

      …and a little better. :) Not that I don't love The Book Thief, but Catch-22 is one of my favorite books of all time. Maybe that's why I love non-chronological storytelling!

  10. Doodle says:

    Ok so i have never read even one page of this book so this doesn't count as a spoiler! I am going to make a prediction/theory/thing:

    I think that Liesel's family was Jewish, and her mother gave away her children to try to protect them. Her mother is probably in a concentration camp somewhere, and if Liesel hadn't been given to the Hubermanns she probably would be too. I don't know how Liesel would ever be able to find out about her mother if that is the case, because it's not like the Germans kept records of every person that passed through a camp (right?). I have a feeling there is epic sadness to come.

    • Meenalives says:

      I had that thought too, but I would be really disappointed in the storytelling if that was the case, because it seems way too predictable to me. Also, I would think that Liesel would know by the age of nine if she was Jewish unless her family was incredibly assimilated. I actually think it's more likely that her mother is a political dissident (and is still in a concentration camp) given that her father was a Communist. The Germans did actually keep records of the people who passed through the camps, though towards the end of the war they burned a lot of them.

      • Thiamalonee says:

        That's what I was thinking. The fact that Hans hates the Nazis indicates to me that he has personal experience (the mysterious accordian story?) or that he can see the results more clearly, which indicates Liesel has been affected. The mysterious "They," has to be the Nazis, right? Because she learns about it on the Fuher's birthday.

        At first I thought Liesel might be Jewish, too, but that wouldn't make sense because of how she's been treated by the orphanage people and the people that know she was given to the Hubermanns. It makes more sense that her mother was rounded up for a work camp, either because (as you mentioned) her father was a known Communist, or even just because she was poor and sick, and thus, an "undesirable."

        • feminerdist says:

          Ahhhhh the Communist ties. Yeah, I forgot about that part earlier… yeah that could do it. Hrm….

          I am really tempted to just read the rest of this book right now.

    • feminerdist says:

      I am thinking the same thing, but… wouldn't she know if she was Jewish or not? Maybe her mother is only part Jewish? I just feel like this could be leaning that way. Possibly. But then again, this book is so far not what I expected, so maybe this mystery doesn't go as expected either. Oh I have no idea.

      So don't tell me if this is a spoiler, cause then you're spoiling me AND Mark. Just… don't answer the question. :)

    • Mitch says:

      It was mentioned that Liesel was Lutheran, so I don't think this is the case.

  11. erin says:

    Good God. These two chapters were the first ones that actually made me *feel* sad. All the rest – Werner's death, the funeral, her mother leaving, Liesel's nightmares – inspired nothing more than a vague "Aw, that's unfortunate." But Liesel rushing to the mailbox every day to see if her mother had written back? Hans thinking about forging a return letter? Liesel risking a terrible beating just to mail the rest of them, and breaking down on the kitchen floor? Even my cold heart melted. That shit choked me up, big time. *Hugs Liesel through the pages*

  12. kohlrabi says:

    I feel so much dread when I read this book. Quit giving me tiny almost happy moments Zusak, you just plan on punching me in the face later. I'm trying to be prepared!

  13. BradSmith5 says:

    Yes, yes, good chapters, good chapters. Like Erin, this is the first time I have felt for the characters, and I believe that it is because the narrator kept his wacky comments to a minimum. "Dead Letters" had zero blatant interruptions, and I thank you for that, Zusak.

    Rudy's letter also made me want to write one of my own to Lossthief, telling him to get his lazy butt in here. Hurry up, man! We need more LISTS! ;)

  14. doesntsparkle says:

    I don't think that Rosa is apologizing to Liesel. I think that she is expressing sympathy for whatever happened to Liesel's mother.

  15. doesntsparkle says:

    Is this about that fan fic?

  16. Mauve_Avenger says:

    Some questions for people who speak more German than me, plus a test to see if listyness works:

    "Feuer soll'n's brunzen für einen Monat!" This isn't correct, is it? I'm trying to make sense of it, and it seems like they're (there's that mysterious "they" again) a) either using a strange conjugation of "sollen" with an implied pronoun or using the verb and contracted pronoun as if they're one word, b) possibly using "uns," which to me makes zero sense whatsoever, and c) acting as if "brunzen" isn't a verb. Wouldn't it be some form of "Feuer sollten sie für einen Monat brunzen," allowing a little wiggle room for Rosa Hubermann's contractions and mistakes? I guess it could all be explained by Rosa's lack of education, but it seems like those are very counter-intuitive mistakes for someone who's grown up speaking the language to make (assuming, of course, that they're even mistakes). Am I right on this, or do I just know a lot less German than I thought I did?
    What does "wuistz" actually mean? I'm pretty sure I've never encountered that word before, and the only references I can find for it online are from The Book Thief itself. I can't even find it in the dictionary I have.

    • Exilpfaelzer says:

      I'm not sure about the second since it is quite a while ago that I read the book, but "wuistz" could be Bavarian for "you know". The same goes for the first – it is dialect and correct as far as that goes. "soll'n's" is a contraction of "sollen sie". As for the sentence construction, again it sounds natural enough to me.
      (I am German myself but only moved to Bavaria six months ago – the dialect is quite strong. Your German is most likely fine but the Bavarian dialect is quite a strong one and changes not only pronunciation but also entire words and partly even sentence structures – the structure above is used for emphasis I think.)

      • Mauve_Avenger says:

        Ah, I get it now (well, as much as I can without knowing Bavarian dialect). I keep forgetting that Bavarian German is so different.

        It seems kind of weird to me that "sollen sie" would be contracted to "soll'n's" instead of "soll'n s'" or something like that, but I see now how weird/confusing it looks to have it contracted the way I thought it would be.

        Thanks a bunch.
        <img src="http://i1133.photobucket.com/albums/m593/the_mauve_avenger/5tw1mg.gif"&gt;

        • HieronymusGrbrd says:

          "Was wuistz" is bavarian for "Was willst du" (What do you want).

          ETA: (Since Intense Debate still allows me to edit after 13 hours)
          Hans probably spoke impatiently, in a "let me alone I'm working" tone.
          Said more agressively, it may also mean "Wanna fight?"

  17. arctic_hare says:

    I am a moderation vegetarian, meaning I don't approve of spam. Therefore, this will be deleted.

  18. Lady X says:

    If you like reading books,that cut to the future/present then to the past, I STRONGLY recomend reading a Northern Light :)

  19. HieronymusGrbrd says:

    Concerning spaeculations about Liesel being Jewish: she certainly is not, or her mother must have been really dumb if she tried to hide her in view of the foster authorities.

    I got the impression that the Memingers didn't have a home (boarding houses were mentioned) at least since the communist father had been taken away. Vagrancy would have been reason enough to be sent to a work camp, so Liesel's mother had to find a place for her to stay.

    Yeah, I eventually purchased the original book and caught up (the german translation seemed too awkward).

    • HieronymusGrbrd says:

      Ouch! To Clarify: I meant to say "stupid" (dumm in German). No ableist language here. Obviously I shouldn't try to write fast, even when I'm late. And I should read what I typed before I submit the comment.

  20. Gabbie says:

    DEATH, YOU ARE TEASING ME.
    Only in this book could you say something like that. :)

    • ThreeBooks says:

      …Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett…

      • cait0716 says:

        I want to upvote you more, but I can't. I also want to mention the rest of Discworld, Sandman, Dead Like Me, Death's Daughter, and probably other stories I'm forgetting. I may have a problem with media concerning an anthropomorphic personification of Death. It's all so fascinating. Death's Daughter wasn't even that good and I couldn't put it down.

        The point being, I agree with your comment

  21. Mitch says:

    No, it was mentioned that Liesel is Lutheran, in upbringing if not current practice.

  22. canadadian says:

    Whew, schoolwork has let up enough that I can finally catch up! My thoughts so far:
    I sympathize a lot with Liesel. When I was younger, I was bullied socially (i.e. basically shunned/ignored during the elementary/middle school period) and I found a lot of solace in books. I would spend most of my recesses reading out on the yard: once I got in trouble for bringing a classroom book outside, but I kept doing it anyway because the books were really all I had. I tried to retaliate once by telling the principal, but it didn't work as well as Liesel's physical retaliation… I don't really like to think about that period in my life these days.
    Moving on from my tale of woe.
    I enjoy Zusak/Death's narration style and odd non-sequiturs immensely. Even though it's not a standard purple prose, it's still easy to visualize the scenes and the experience is made all the better due to the quirkiness. I also love Death's characterization, and I find his spoilers a little frustrating, but in a good way. Like when you're mentally yelling at an author, "MOAR BACKSTORY" and they purposefully drag it out to make it all the more delicious when it happens. Mmm, backstory. HINT HINT ZUSAK.
    Yes, teal deer are running rampant in the above paragraphs, I know. So just one more thing. POLL TIME: Rudy/Death (pick your favourite), Buttercup/Finnick (again, pick one), or Hagrid/Lupin (you know the drill). ONLY ONE CAN WIN. (You can sub in other favourites, I just chose the most likely to be Mark's faves based on a complicated formula involving keysmashes, fanboying, capitalization, and mentions in the comments and reviews ;) )

  23. Laura says:

    "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."

    As an adopted child myself, that is REALLY FUCKING SAD. My parents are so different from that. HUGS FOREVER.

  24. SecretGirl127 says:

    I said early on that I tensed up every time Hans was near her because it seems it is always the creepy smoking step-dad that is abusive. I didn't know our Hansi was such a sweetheart!

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