In the thirty-sixth chapter of The Book Thief, Max gets to work on creating a late birthday present for Liesel. In the process, he makes us cry ALL OF THE TEARS. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Book Thief.
For the last hour or so, I’ve really struggled with how I was going to write a post about the thirty-sixth chapter of The Book Thief. There’s a logistical problem here, first of all: thirteen pages of this chapter are scans of the book that Max Vandenburg wrote and drew himself. (Bless Markus Zusak for creating these, as they add to the story so much more than if he had just described them.) I didn’t want to simply tell all of you what this book comprises. I mean…YOU CAN SEE THEM. AND THEN YOU CAN SOB FOR LIKE FIFTY MILLION HOURS BECAUSE HOLY GOD THE STANDOVER MAN.
Seriously, this chapter is like one gigantic punch in the gut. The relationship between Max and Liesel has now eclipsed how touching the Liesel/Hans relationship was. That’s not to discount the amazing things Hans has done for his foster daughter, but this spectacular form of empathy and understanding from Max is in its own league.
I wanted to tell a story again because I’ve gotten really comfortable sharing myself with the lot of you. It’s been a very cathartic and enriching experience the last year or so, and I went through a little trip in my brain to think if there was anything in my life that resonated with this particular chapter.
Truthfully, at first, I was actually stumped. Because of the nature of the way I was raised, I had very little personal interaction with anyone in my life aside from my family until at least junior high. Due to my mother’s insistent strictness, I didn’t have close friends until at least the seventh grade. Even then, I was only able to get close to people within the confines of a school schedule. Because I was not allowed friends over or allowed to go to anyone else’s house, what little conversations I could have with anyone were restricted to lunch time or breaks or small moments in the hallways or quad of my school. And really….there’s not much you can share with that little time on your hands.
So it became this concerned issue for me as I tried to think about someone doing something for me that was akin to what Max does for Liesel in this chapter. Honestly, the things that made me feel pangs of happiness or made me feel accepted or liked were never as grand or as concentrated as the book that Max painstakingly creates for Liesel. It was always the little things that I latched on to during those years, simply because that was all that I had. I remember the first and ONLY time in the sixteen years I lived with my parents (well, technically fifteen, since I was adopted a while after birth) that I was allowed to have a friend over is when my friend Pilar stopped by to help with a project for Ms. Hall’s science class. (FYI, I am still friends with her because SHE IS AN AMAZING HUMAN BEING I LOVE YOU PILAR IF YOU ARE READING THIS).
Now, I’ve shared bits and pieces of what my mother was like and some days I worry that I’ve made her out to be some sort of MONSTER of a parent. And yes, things were truly awful for me, but most of it wasn’t as blatant as the things I’ve said in stories. My mom is simply an intimidating person. She still is, though we now get along fabulously and her temperament towards me is literally the opposite of what it was when I was a kid. I remember the assignment, too. Every pair of students in class was assigned a different element from the Periodic Table, and we would have to replicate that element in a physical form. Pilar and I were assigned chlorine, with an atomic weight of 17. Was I terrified to have Pilar over? YES, I WAS. But it was inevitable! We had to work together in order to do the project. So Pilar’s mother dropped her off one afternoon, the day before the project was due, and my mom piled the two of us into her minivan to take us to Michael’s for supplies.
Mom did all the shopping. She picked out the wires. She picked out the hangers. She picked out the Styrofoam spheres. She picked out the glue. She picked the design, she paid for it, she told us nothing about how all of this was supposed to go together. She drove us home and she watched us for a mere five minutes, as we tried to shape the wire hangers and spear the balls of Styrofoam to create our element before, in a moment of frustrated anger, she did the entire thing herself. THE WHOLE THING. She did a great job, too, but I suppose that’s not the point.
After Pilar got picked up a couple hours after she was dropped off, I started worrying that I’d just lost the closest thing I had to a friend at the time. I knew my mom was strict and overbearing, but there was a sense of comfort in knowing that no one else actually knew how bad it was. It was almost like my own little secret. I could mention the fact that my mom didn’t let me do things and end the conversation right there. But now, a person I considered an actual friend has seen this behavior first hand.
Would she still want to be friends with me? Would she tell everyone at school the environment I lived under? Would everyone else have another thing to use against me when they picked on me? I could already imagine the taunts, poking fun at me for being a Momma’s boy, the kids telling me that the only girl I’d ever be able to have would be my own mother. It would inevitably turn to me being called gay and a faggot and I’d have to go hide in the library (LITERALLY, THAT IS WHAT I WOULD DO HEY DO YOU WONDER WHY I LIKE BOOKS SO MUCH) for the entirety of lunch like I did so many times during junior high.
Ms. Hall’s class felt like I was stepping into a WAR ZONE the next day. I know I was at a point where I simply expected bullying at that point, that it was such a staple of my day-to-day routine that I learned that anticipating it could at least lessen some of the damage.
But wonderful, brilliant Pilar did something wonderful. As I came in with our project, which got a tad smashed when someone shoved me into a wall while I was walking to class, I sat near her and presented her with it, smiling nervously.
“Your mom is fun,” she said immediately, laughing a bit.
I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry that happened.
“No, it’s ok, our project came out really good.” Pause. Shuffle. “Besides, every family isn’t perfect, right?”
She handed in our chlorine model and spoke nothing of it again.
That small, tiny, subtle act of understanding spoke volumes to me. It was a chance for me to breathe easy about this one thing, to know that I did not have to worry that my life would be exposed to the world, or that I would lose someone I finally started to care about because of my mother.
Over the years, there have been a few people who did things for me that were unabashedly wonderful and heartfelt. When my father died, two of my friends overnighted me a vegan carrot cake, because eating your sorrows away is always appropriate. RIGHT. My friend Ernie took me in to his household when I ran away from home, and I will forever be indebted to him for how accepting and welcoming he was about what probably was a difficult situation to be involved with. There were many couches throughout the years that followed my high school days of independence, many floors I slept on and many beds that people gave up so that I would have somewhere to sleep when I had no home to call my own. And look, I know that a great deal of my life has been filled with really heartbreaking shit, but there has been a lot of good, too, a lot of moments that continue to foster my sense of hope that I have for other people, that maybe we can all work together to help those in need or those we care about.
The thirty-sixth chapter of The Book Thief reminds me of those moments. It’s a frank and comforting sense of joy that this chapter brings me. And now I’m curious about those of you who are reading along, too. What moment in your life made you feel this kind of hope or joy? What made you feel like maybe you aren’t that alone in the world?
Tomorrow, we start part five! We’re almost halfway through the novel as well. EXCITE FOREVER.