In the thirty-fifth chapter of The Book Thief, the household at 33 Himmel Street adapts to having Max Vandenburg, the struggling Jew, living in their basement. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Book Thief.
CH. 35: THE SWAPPING OF NIGHTMARES
Holy long chapter, I actually thought I’d missed the end of chapter thirty-five because this is so much longer than what I expected. But it’s necessary for Zusak to give this space and to start to pass the time a little as well. We still need to get to 1943, where we know Hans will miss death a second time, and we’re still in 1940.
What chapter thirty-five helps to do is create a much more manageable pattern for the Hubermann household, and I also think for us, too. This is one of those segments that certainly feels like the calm before the storm, and I’m getting jitters at the very idea of all of this falling apart. I mean…that’s going to happen, right? UGH TOO MUCH DREAD FOR ONE STOMACH.
Max doesn’t immediately feel safe or fully protected in the Hubermann house and I’m glad this wasn’t a magical process for him, either. I wouldn’t have believed it. Out of everything he feels, Max is most certainly consumed by guilt and shame for his predicament. He initially feels guilt at sleeping in the same room as Liesel for the first three days of his stay:
“I’m sorry,” he confessed to Hans and Rosa on the basement steps. “From now on I will stay down here. You will not hear from me. I will not make a sound.”
Hans and Rosa, both steeped in the despair of the predicament, made no argument, not even in regard to the cold. They heaved blankets down and topped up the kerosene lamp. Rosa admitted that there could not be much food, to which Max fervently asked her to bring only scraps, and only when they were not wanted by anyone else.
Max’s lack of self worth is what depresses me the most. I mean, the whole situation is awful, but Max has been beat down for so long that he literally doesn’t even believe he’s worthy of scraps. FUCK.
And that’s one of a few patterns that are established here. Max constantly thanks the family for everything, and then apologizes for himself. The guilt is all he seems to know at this point in life, and it’s hard for him to ignore the parallel to that day two years before when he escaped certain death and left his family behind:
He wanted to walk out—Lord, how he wanted to (or at least he wanted to want to)—but he knew he wouldn’t. It was much the same as the way he left his family in Stuttgart, under a veil of fabricated loyalty.
Living was living.
The price was guilt and shame.
But even though that road is difficult, we also start seeing that both Liesel and Max, those outcasts who arrived in states of trauma at the Hubermann household, are ready to interact with each other, that they share more in common than the other even realizes. Their first moment together since Max moved to the basement is dripping with awkwardness, but something about Max drives Liesel to feel shy around him. She delivers him his bowl of soup and he’s holding Mein Kampf, the book that saved his life, and she tries to ask Max about it.
“Is?” she whispered.
There was a queer strand in her voice, planed off and curly in her mouth.
The Jew moved only his head a little closer. “Bitte? Excuse me?” She handed him the pea soup and returned upstairs, red, rushed, and foolish.
Well, it’s a start. They’ve both traded a single word now!
But such is their relationship at first. Max’s presence injects an odd vibe throughout the house. Liesel listens in on her parents discussing Max at night, when he’s asleep in the cold, dank basement. It’s never an argument, really, but one night Hans makes a point to state that they all absolutely have to act as if Max isn’t living with them. They cannot raise suspicion that anything has changed at the house.
Life had altered in the wildest possible way, but it was imperative that they act as if nothing at all had happened.
Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day.
That was the business of hiding a Jew.
Surprisingly, though, it doesn’t seem that difficult to pull off as the days go by. It especially helps that out of everyone in the Himmel Street household, Rosa seems to have taken the change to heart the most.
What shocked Liesel most was the change in her mama. Whether it was the calculated way in which she divided the food, or the considerable muzzling of her notorious mouth, or even the gentler expression on her cardboard face, one thing was becoming clear.
* * *AN ATTRIBUTE OF ROSA HUBERMANN * * *
She was a good woman for a crisis.
ROSA HUBERMANN BACKSTORY. NOW. I fear we may never get it at this point, but let’s talk about this. This transformation does make sense, given the context, but given how Rosa treated everyone for the first 150 pages of this novel, I’m still a bit flabbergasted at it all. What is making her put aside her general view on life and her family to act the way she does? I mean…I guess I don’t really need to learn what it is that is motivating this change, as it’s a welcome growth on the part of her character. Hell, maybe it exists solely as a technique for Zusak to show us just how severe Max’s presence is in that house. And I think, ultimately, I’d be ok with that.
I’m just selfish. MOAR MOAR MOAR.
Liesel’s life continues as usual to the people in Molching. Rudy makes it incredibly easy for her to block out the events at home because he is so committed to talking about himself. In that sense, Rudy’s humor is a great way for Liesel to hide her own life, which is generally not how these things work. Rudy’s life, to so Liesel, is so much easier to be humorous about. What’s she got to laugh about?
She also continues to visit the mayor’s life to continue her reading. Personally, that would be a welcome distraction for me. She picks up on a book called The Whistler (which I don’t believe is real, unless I just couldn’t find it), which opens with a murder, and it seems she only reads three pages at a time. (Much slower pace than myself, and I read books at a turtle’s pace these days.) Parallel to this, Max is also discovering a book, The Shoulder Shrug. Did Liesel finish this yet? Zusak hasn’t said, has he? Either way, the two people who came to the Hubermann household and are both drawn to books will soon come together in a much closer way.
The parallel is pretty obvious, but I guess I don’t care. Rosa is close with her father, but she doesn’t have anyone in her life who can understand the tragedy she’s lived with, and Max seems like the first person to be able to fully empathize with her. Maybe that’s why she’s so terrified by Max; maybe there’s a subconscious fear that she’ll have to relive her life and face her past. But…nah. She’s just a kid and Max is this silent, shameful figure in her house.
This is also when Hans realizes just how much Max is almost punishing himself. After trying to get Liesel to read in the basement with Max, he discovers how freezing it is down there. After a quick and reasonable discussion with Rosa, the two of them agree that the best thing to do is allow Max to sleep upstairs, near the fire, at night, only going to hide downstairs during the day.
“If we gamble on a Jew,” said Papa soon after, “I would prefer to gamble on a live one,” and from that moment, a new routine was born.
That new routine does do something beautiful: It brings this makeshift family together. But that comes a bit later, after days of the routine pass, after Trudy comes to visit her mother and father, unsuspecting of the man in the basement, and after everyone becomes comfortable with this arrangement.
There’s a moment that I think marks the change in the relationship between Liesel and Max, and also signifies another important moment in Liesel’s life:
For the first few weeks in front of the fire, max remained wordless. Now that he was having a proper bath once a week, Liesel noticed that his hair was no longer a nest of twigs, but rather a collection of feathers, flopping about on his head. Still shy of the stranger, she whispered it to her papa.
“His hair is like feathers.”
“What?” The fire had distorted the words.
“I said,” she whispered again, leaning closer, “his hair is like feathers…”
Hans Hubermann looked across and nodded his agreement. I’m sure he was wishing to have eyes like the girl. They didn’t realize that Max had heard everything.
I think Liesel just got the spark to start writing. She didn’t realize it at the time. Hans picked up on the observation, which is strangely poetic, and I think he gets the sense that Liesel has something inside her that she doesn’t. And I think we’ll see more moments like this in the future.
There’s nothing else like that in this chapter, but Max and Liesel finally begin to bond when Liesel gets the courage to ask Max if Mein Kampf is at all good, and he replies:
“It’s the best book ever.” Looking at Papa, then back at the girl. “It saved my life.”
The girl moved a little and crossed her legs. Quietly, she asked it.
And thus begins a new bout of storytelling. It’s really neat how much this is a thing in the Hubermann household, between the books Liesel stole or was given, between the stories that Hans has told his foster daughter, and now with Max spending the time to tell his story to Liesel. They share stories with each other. They teach each other the value of experience. They agree that a story is meant to be told. A book is meant to be read. And goddamn it, I love it.
It’s also the beginning of the chance for these two people to satisfy the title of this chapter. I think that Max’s storytelling helps Liesel to truly understand why he’s in their house, and also eliminates a lot of the irrational fear she has towards him.
During the nights, both Liesel Meminger and Max Vandenburg would go about their other similarity. In their separate rooms, they would dream their nightmares and wake up, one with a scream in drowning sheets, the other with a gasp for air next to a smoking fire.
Their similarity and their shared pain is what inspires Liesel to finally go talk to Max about his dreams. She understands how a singular moment in one’s past can continually visit them in a dream. And she understands why he sleeps the way he does. So she decides to talk to him, ask him what he sees, while he asks her what she sees, and they share a moment of understanding.
It would be nice to say that after this small breakthrough, neither Liesel nor Max dreamed their bad visions again. It would be nice but untrue. The nightmares arrived like they always did, much like the best player in the opposition when you’ve heard rumors that he might be injured or sick—but there he is, warming up with the rest of them, ready to take the field. Or like a timetabled train, arriving at a nightly platform, pulling the memories behind it on a rope. A lot of dragging. A lot of awkward bounces.
Zusak, how do you slay me with these passages. Seriously, this man has TALENT and I love that I can still be knocked on my ass by a single sentence or metaphor.
The only thing that changed was that Liesel told her Papa that she should be old enough now to cope on her own with the dreams. For a moment, he looked a little hurt, but as always with Papa, he gave the right thing to say his best shot.
“Well, thank God.” He halfway grinned. “At least now I can get some proper sleep. That chair was killing me.” He put his arm around the girl and they walked to the kitchen.
OH GOD, CHARACTER GROWTH be still my heart. I can only hope that Liesel and Max begin to spend more time together as well, since Liesel seems to have found a new way to cope with her dreams. She begins to do sweet things for him, such as bring him a newspaper so he can do the crossword puzzle. Are they going to share a love for words as well? When Liesel’s twelfth birthday rolls around, Hans gives her yet another book—The Mud Men—and Max feels compelled to give something to Liesel. After hugging Rosa and Hans for her gift, she finds that Max is alone. And that’s meant in both a literal and metaphorical sense from what we see here. And it’s also why Liesel is one amazing human being:
And she walked over and hugged him for the first time. “Thanks, Max.”
At first, he merely stood there, but as she held on to him, gradually his hands rose up and gently pressed into her shoulder blades.
Only later would she find out about the hopeless expression on Max Vandenburg’s face. She would also discover that he resolved at that moment to give her something back. I often imagine him lying awake all that night, pondering what he could possibly offer.
It’s a moment of calm and a moment of acceptance and of love. Max is starting to become a part of this family, in his own way, and I feel that Liesel is at the head of this. And that is a spectacular thing.