In the twenty-first and twenty-second chapters of The Book Thief, Liesel makes a secret pact with her foster father over the second book she stole and discovers who the shadow was watching her when she stole it. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Book Thief.
CH. 21: THE WAY HOME
I get the distinct sense that Zusak is hinting towards a more conflicting relationship between Liesel and Hans, and in this and the next chapter, we get more of the strenuous interaction between a father who knows in his heart what is right and knows in his mind what he needs to do to keep his family alive. It doesn’t help that Liesel is becoming more and more confident about how she feels about the world, nor does it help that she is comfortable enough to be openly inquisitive with Hans Hubermann.
Chapter twenty-one opens with Liesel’s third book, but she didn’t steal to get it. Hans Hubermann brings her Mein Kampf and it’s obvious that his interaction with Hans Junior was enough to inspire this moment, but Death hints that a lot more happened to bring that book to the Hubermann household.
The narrative jumps right back to the end of the last chapter and, the burning unbearable, Liesel finally has to stop and remove the smoldering book from her chest. Unsurprisingly, while Hans is a bit shocked, he doesn’t seem very angry:
“Looks like,” Papa suggested, “I don’t need to trade any more cigarettes, do I? Not when you’re stealing these things as fast as I can buy them.”
Liesel, by comparison, did not speak. Perhaps it was her first realization that criminality spoke best for itself. Irrefutable.
Liesel’s guilt is magnified by Hans’s reaction, which was, at first, a shocked silence as he poured through the pages, unsure what The Shoulder Shrug was even about. But when he swears and Liesel is confused as to the reason why, I suddenly become perplexed. (I’m actually avoiding Googling to see if it’s a real book because I want the surprise to be more genuine, so please don’t tell me anything about this book.) Why is he reacting this way? What is this book about? Why does he become so upset?
This time, his voice was like a fist, freshly banged on the table.
The man was seeing something. He was watching it quickly, end to end, like a race, but it was too high and too far away for Liesel to see. She begged him. “Come on, Papa, what is it?” She fretted that he would tell Mama about the book. As humans do, this was all about her. “Are you going to tell?”
I like that Liesel is oblivious to what’s really going on here, instead choosing to believe that Papa’s confusion or anger is over her, when he’s really upset about the book itself. Even Hans is a bit bewildered that THIS is the question she chooses to ask instead and quickly confirms that he would do no such thing. Death gives us an aside at this point, providing the context I spoke about earlier. For Hans Hubermann, he can see that Liesel’s newest stolen book is a manifestation of Hans Junior’s pointed question from before: “And what trash is this girl reading?”
Frightened about the implications of this new book, he tells Liesel that this particular book must be a secret, only to be read at night and never discussed with anyone else besides her father.
“We’ll read it at night or in the basement, just like the others–but you have to promise me something.”
The night was smooth and still. Everything listened. “If I ever ask you to keep a secret for me, you will do it.”
Oh man, what is Hans Hubermann hiding? I don’t think this is a reference specifically to this book that Liesel has stolen. We know that Hans is not a member of the Nazi party, that he did something to make them throw out his application, and that he harbors a resentment of the Nazis and Hitler, but only seems to talk about it with his own son. I’m guessing that in the near future, he’ll have to confide in Liesel and we’ll learn why he told her this.
Within the next few days, unbeknownst to Liesel, Hans actually secures a copy of Mein Kampf and visits the office of the Nazi party in town to discuss his membership again. It’s not spelled out entirely, but I’m beginning to get a fuller picture of Hans Hubermann. When he leaves the Nazi office, he overhears one of the men inside say, “He will never be approved even if he buys a hundred copies of Mein Kampf.” I think that they are referring to Hans painting over the houses of Jewish citizens in Molching, yes? (As I typed that, I suddenly doubted that it was Hans who had done that. Am I correct?)
What I didn’t expect, though, is that Hans had a much different motive than I expected for buying that book:
There must have been a good share of mixed feelings at that moment, for Hans Hubermann’s idea had not only sprung from Liesel, but from his son. Did he already fear he’d never see him again? On the other hand, he was also enjoying the ecstasy of an idea, not daring just yet to envision its complications, dangers, and vicious absurdities. For now, the idea was enough. It was indestructible. Transforming it into reality, well, that was something else together. For now, though, let’s let him enjoy it.
Damn it. What on earth is he planning?
CH 22: THE MAYOR’S LIBRARY
It’s kind of nice that The Book Thief is breaking from the norm of things I read and watch that are repeatedly full of SHIT JUST GOT REAL moments. This book has a much slower progression than what I’ve done in the past, and it’s great to do new things. This is why this specific chapter is so powerfully hopeful and shocking. I didn’t expect this. This doesn’t feel like a book full of plot twists, so it makes what happens here all the more exciting.
For Liesel, despite the relief of Hans assuring her that he won’t tell Rosa that she stole another book, she is wrecked with guilt and paranoia. The problem is that someone ELSE saw her steal the book. And that other person will not be as easy to convince as Hans was.
Every minute, every hour, there was worry, or more to the point, paranoia. Criminal activity will do that to a person, especially a child. They envision a prolific assortment of caughtoutedness. Some examples: People jumping out of alleys. Schoolteachers suddenly being aware of every sin you’ve ever committed. Police showing up at the door each time a leaf turns or a distant gate slams shut.
HAHAHAHA OK HOW MANY OF YOU EXPERIENCED THE EXACT SAME THING. Ok, my mother was ruthlessly strict, most of the time for things that did not deserve her ire, but if I did manage to do something wrong, this is pretty much exactly how my brain worked. I believed that the police would come arrest me simply because I ate a cookie out of the kitchen pantry and that they had hid cameras inside just to catch me. No, this probably wasn’t all that healthy, but my nine-year-old mind most certainly couldn’t comprehend the inner-workings of the criminal court system in California. I just believed that everyone could watch me and I would always get in trouble. LOL I WAS A WELL-ADJUSTED KID LOL
Reading this a second time (I always read it again before I review the chapter), I can’t believe how unbearably obvious this reveal was, yet I seriously had no clue about it. I couldn’t figure out why Liesel was so terrified to visit the Mayor’s house. I assumed that she was afraid of them rejecting her mother’s services and having to deal with Rosa’s fury again. Or maybe she was just creeped out by the Mayor’s wife. She even specifically avoids this house and gets caught by Rosa, who orders her to return to the mayor’s house and bring back his washing or she is not to come home at all.
Of course, she goes straight to Rudy Steiner in her time in need. Asking him to accompany her to the mayor’s house, Liesel slowly comes to the realization that she is going to have to deal with the people at this house. (SERIOUSLY, HOW DID I NOT SEE THIS). The walk to the house itself is unbearable, awkward, and tense, Liesel dreading the moment more and more each minute. I loved that Rudy teased and taunted her about her inability to merely knock on the door, but I think that’s because I didn’t see the obvious here. She never speaks and she always just hands her washing over. Why was she so upset about it this time? Why was Liesel so frightened?
It seemed that nothing out of the ordinary would happen this time either. The mayor’s wife answers the door, as she always does, unspeaking and silent. The wife hands over the clothing and the money, and the two stare at each other, almost as if they are sizing each other up. Then the mayor’s wife closes the door. That’s it. Liesel remains staring at the door while Rudy calls out to her to get going and then:
Perhaps the woman hadn’t seen her steal the book after all. It had been getting dark. Perhaps it was one of those times when a person appears to be looking directly at you when, in fact, they’re contentedly watching something else or simply daydreaming. Whatever the answer, Liesel didn’t attempt any further analysis. She’d gotten away with it and that was enough.
Seriously, I can’t believe how obvious this was. IT WAS THE MAYOR’S WIFE, NOT DEATH. But let’s just say that you were not like me and you figured that out immediately because, I don’t know, YOU PAY ATTENTION. This “reveal” is nothing to what happens after this. Death’s aside states that the mayor’s wife had absolutely seen Liesel steal that book from the fire. She’s just waiting for the right time. DUN DUN DUN.
That “right” time is weeks later, when Liesel has abandoned her need to bring Rudy with her. Alone and on a pick-up day, the mayor’s wife takes advantage of the situation and actually invites Liesel inside. Liesel guesses that the mayor’s wife is just going to bring back the washing and she is temporarily relieved this is not a confrontation of sorts.
When she came and stood with an impossibly frail steadfastness, she was holding a tower of books against her stomach, from her navel to the beginnings of her breasts. She looked so vulnerable in the monstrous doorway. Long, light eyelashes and just the slightest twinge of expression. A suggestion.
Come and see, it said.
BOOKS. SHE HAS BOOKS. She has no interest in confronting Liesel. She wants to help her. O H M Y G O D
Just…holy shit. The next scene. THE NEXT SCENE.
The mayor’s wife was not deterred. She only looked briefly behind and continued on, to a chestnut-colored door. Now her face asked a question.
Are you ready?
Liesel craned her neck a little, as if she might see over the door that stood in her way. Clearly, that was the cue to open it.
This has to be my favorite part of the whole book so far:
She said it out loud, the words distributed into a room that was full of cold air and books. Books everywhere! Each wall was armed with overcrowded yet immaculate shelving. It was barely possible to see the paintwork. There were all different styles and sizes of lettering on the spines of the back, the red, the gray, the every-colored books. It was one of the most beautiful things Liesel Meminger had ever seen.
I really don’t see how anyone could ever adapt this book into a film, but I’m pretty sure if it was done, I would simply weep during this part. We’ve already discussed how meaningful and important books are to Liesel’s life and for a lot of us as well. Could you imagine being deprived of books to the point of having to steal them in order to read them and then being introduced to THIS?!?!?!?!
Even when she tried to wipe the smile away with her forearm, she realized instantly that it was a pointless exercise. She could feel the eyes of the woman traveling her body, and when she looked at her, they had rested on her face.
Knowing the mayor’s wife’s temperament, it makes this mean even more than it already does:
There was more silence than she ever thought possible. It extended like an elastic, dying to break. The girl broke it.
The two words stood among acres and acres of vacant, wooden-floored land nthe books were miles away.
The woman nodded.
Yes, you can.
BE STILL, MY BLACK HEART. This is HUGE. oh my god, if I had access to something like this when I was a kid, I would have enjoyed the fact that I wasn’t allowed out of the house. THIS IS SO AMAZING.
Now, I admit to owning an iPad that I use as an e-book reader. It just works so much better for Mark Reads than a physical book. (HELLO ABILITY TO SEARCH A BOOK. I LOVE YOU.) But I’ll always love the physicality of books. I still own hundreds of them. I prefer reading regular old books than this reader I use when I get the chance. So I love that Zusak takes time to show Liesel interacting with the books in a physical manner:
She ran the back of her hand along the first shelf, listening to the shuffle of her fingernails gliding across the spinal cord of each book. It sounded like an instrument, or the notes of running feet. She used both hands. She raced them. One shelf against the other.
I STILL DO THIS. Seriously, this is like book porn or something. Nothing will ever replace the physical joy of books for me, despite the practical nature of e-readers. Liesel treats the books like the physical treasures they are, even helping the mayor’s wife put the books she was carrying back in their spot on one of the shells. And when the mayor’s wife is smiling about all of this, I know that Liesel has just reached a new chapter in her life. Overwhelmed at the newness of it all, Liesel feels so awkward about the situation. I mean…..what do you do with a discovery like this?
Liesel runs away. Reluctantly, slowly, quietly. She refuses to ruin such a perfect moment, opting instead to relish the immediate memory, maybe even plan her next visit. But even that comes into jeopardy when she realizes she left the mayor’s house without saying a single word. No plans to come back, no affirmation of joy, not even. A thank you. Just a few minutes from home, Liesel decides she cannot live with this. She bolts back to the mayor’s house in a frantic hurry, knocking on the door furiously, only to discover the mayor himself standing at the doorway. Alone. Liesel quietly stands at the stoop until Ilsa Hermann arrives:
“I forgot,” Liesel said. She lifted the bag and addressed the mayor’s wife. Despite the forced labor of breath, she fed the words through the gap in the doorway–between the mayor and the frame–to the woman. Such was her effort to breathe that the words escaped only a few at a time. “I forgot…I mean, I just….wanted,” she said, “to thank you.”
I love you, Liesel Meminger.
The mayor’s wife bruised herself again. Coming forward to stand beside her husband, she nodded very faintly, waited, and closed the door.
It took Liesel a minute or so to leave.
She smiled at the steps.
Easily the best chapter yet. I LOVE THIS BOOK.