In the thirty-third and thirty-fourth chapters of The Book Thief, Max Vandenburg waltzes into the Hubermann house on Himmel Street and brings life-changing heartbreak to the entire family. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Book Thief.
All right, so this is just going to continue to get more and more depressing, isn’t it? I’m not prepared, obviously, but at least stating this at loud will help. Max’s arrival has changed everything. And I’m fully aware that that is a cliché statement and one I am prone to making in my Mark Does Stuff ventures, but seriously, I have never meant it more than now. This whole book has to change now. Smartly, Markus Zusak is painfully aware of this and this chapter doesn’t disappoint in addressing this reality very well, despite how uncomfortable this all is.
CH. 33: LIESEL’S LECTURE
A small complaint about how Zusak frames the opening bit of chapter thirty-three:
Exactly what kind of people Hans and Rosa Hubermann were was not the easiest problem to solve. Kind people? Ridiculously ignorant people? People of questionable sanity?
Well, ok, that last bit…I’m always reluctant to make points about ableism in regards to mental health because my own problems aren’t diagnosed and I don’t want to center the issue around myself. But that line struck me as a bit disappointing, only because people with mental health issues or “questionable sanity” are entirely capable of making good decisions, moral decisions, and doing wonderful things to people around them, so I don’t really like the implication that Hans and Rosa might be not “sane” because they are willingly choosing to help out Max Vandenburg. Though…these are Death’s words, and it might be an element of his character and not Zusak’s actual beliefs. And I get that. It’s just a very tiny moment in an otherwise amazing chapter that does everything else so wonderfully, but I thought I’d bring it up so we can discuss it. I think, in context, it might not be that problematic, but I am no expert on mental health and ableism. Thoughts?
But as I said, Zusak does get everything else right in this chapter, beautifully so. As uncomfortable and terrifying this situation is for Liesel, Hans, and Rosa, he never forgets to point out that out of everyone here, Max is truly the one who is the most oppressed, who has the most traumatic experience, and whose suffering is so much more frightening. That’s not to say that Zusak ignores the reality of the situation for the rest of the people in the house, because he doesn’t. And he doesn’t say that their experience here is totally disposable and useless, either. The threat of being found out is very, very real.
When a Jew shows up at your place of residence in the early hours of the morning, in the very birthplace of Nazism, you’re likely to experience extreme levels of discomfort. Anxiety, disbelief, paranoia. Each plays its part, and each leads to a sneaking suspicion that a less than heavenly consequence awaits. The fear is shiny. Ruthless in the eyes.
What I find so impressive about this is the way that Zusak crafts this section to show how Hitler’s tyranny creates a social environment where a person can be a mortal threat to happiness, life, and liberty simply be existing. And while the Hubermanns treat Max with the most amazing sense of compassion and empathy, I appreciate that Zusak doesn’t necessarily say, “The Hubermanns are perfect to all Jews forever,” or anything like that. If you read that section again and take out the phrase “a Jew,” it almost sounds like you’re reading about an inanimate object. A plague. A disease, a virus, a vicious outsider. And that’s what Hitler’s Germany did to the Jews. (Well, one of those things, as the situation is certainly not that easy to simplify at all.) By treating them as a diseased and undesirable part of the population, by punishing anyone and everyone who treated the Jews as if they were anything else but garbage, he helped create an environment where people could detach Jews from their humanity. It’s a terrifying, dehumanizing thing, by the very nature of the process. And we can see the same things being done around the world, even here in the United States, in modern times. To be a bit obvious, first of all, I don’t want to draw a parallel that suggests anything I’m about to say is the Holocaust, because these examples all have a different political context and historical weight, and what happened to those exterminated and abused and terrorized at the hands of the NSDAP is not the same.
But look at how the same technique of separating people from their humanity (or their womanhood or their faith or their heritage, etc) can be used to turn a nation against a group. I can name a very specific one that’s affected me: “illegal” immigration. I mentioned on Tumblr not too long ago that people in college literally believed I stole the spot of “well-deserving” white people because I got into school based on “reverse racist” policies. And while it was spelled out directly that they thought I was an “illegal” (at least not that time), that imperialist, racist dialogue is all-too-familiar for me. I’m Latino and it’s been used against me since I was in elementary school. Apparently I have to work harder than white folk in order to prove that I deserve a spot in certain parts of society!
But I digress, as I could spend thousands of words talking about dehumanization. The point being….Zusak gets this. He gets how even the most well-meaning people can sometimes slip up if they’re sold a particular idea about a group of marginalized people. And there are no more well-meaning people than the Hubermann’s here, so this is not a criticism of them at all. I just found it very fascinating and appropriate that the description of their situation briefly reflected the world they lived in.
Anyway, back to The Book Thief. The day after Max arrives, Liesel knows that the dynamic of her household is going to change dramatically, and the first sign of that is when she awakes the following morning and her father tells her she is not going to school that day.
Mama announced the day’s priority. She sat at the table and said, “Now listen, Liesel. Papa’s going to tell you something today.” This was serious—she didn’t even say Saumensch. It was a personal feat of abstinence. “He’ll talk to you and you have to listen. Is that clear?”
The girl was still swallowing.
“Is that clear, Saumensch?”
That was better.
The girl nodded.
I find Rosa’s transformation to be the most fascinating to me. It starts off small, like this moment here where she doesn’t leap to insult Liesel as she normally does. But that transformation will most likely grow in ways we haven’t seen before, and I’m intrigued to find out why this is what changes Rosa’s temperament. CAN WE PLEASE HAVE A ROSA FLASHBACK, ZUSAK. THANK YOU
In the basement later that day, Hans begins his attempt to explain the severity of the situation. Alone with Liesel, he paces the floor, back and forth, choosing his words carefully:
“Listen,” he said quietly, “I was never sure if any of this would happen, so I never told you. About me. About the man upstairs.” He walked from one end of the basement to the other, the lamplight magnifying his shadow. It turned him into a giant on the wall, walking back and forth.
When he stopped pacing, his shadow loomed behind him, watching. Someone was always watching.
“You know my accordion?” he said, and there the story began.
We know the story and I was actually thinking how this might have been an amazing time for Zusak to have revealed it to both Liesel and the reader, but I think he was smart for giving us this flashback so much earlier, so that Max’s arrival also brings a heavy dose of dread as well. Additionally, Zusak is expanding out from focusing entirely on Liesel, showing us this story is not solely about her either. We don’t need to experience this book through her eyes only, so I love what he’s done here.
Hans takes Liesel back to the night of the Führer’s birthday, when Liesel promised that one day she would need to keep a secret, and he lays it all out for her: this is that secret she must keep.
Between the hand-holding shadows, the painted words were scattered about, perched on their shoulders, resting on their heads, and hanging from their arms. “Liesel, if you tell anyone about the man up there, we will all be in big trouble.” He walked the fine line of scaring her into oblivion and soothing her enough to keep her calm. He fed her the sentences and watched with his metallic eyes. Desperation and placidity. “At the very least, Mama and I will be taken away.” Hans was clearly worried that he was on the verge of frightening her too much, but he calculated the risk, preferring to err on the side of too much fear rather than not enough. The girl’s compliance had to be an absolute, immutable fact.
As terrifying as this is, Hans is aware of how all of this can crumble in a second, with one word spoken to the wrong person at the wrong time. So, to communicate this, Hans goes directly to what he knows will have an affect on Liesel: he tells her he will destroy her books. It’s an act that, for Liesel, is utterly inconceivable. As Death says:
The shock made a hole in her, very neat, very precise.
But Hans knows that Liesel loves more than just her books, so he has to explain the irreversible damage that will arrive on the doorstep if she tells anyone about Max Vandenburg.
“They’ll take you away from me. Do you want that?”
She was crying now, in earnest. “Nein.”
“Good.” His grip on her hand tightened. “They’ll drag that man up there away, and maybe Mama and me, too—and we will never, ever come back.”
And that did it.
The girl began to sob so uncontrollably that Papa was dying to pull her into him and hug her tight. He didn’t. Instead, he squatted down and watched her directly in the eyes. He unleashed his quietest words so far. “Verstehst du mich? Do you understand me?”
Did you hear the sound of MY HEART SHATTERING INTO A BILLION PIECES. Good god, this is so intense. But Hans has to do it! He seriously needs to impart on Liesel just how ridiculous this situation is, that there is no room for an exception or a misstep or a mistake. She can tell no one. Despite that Liesel really does understand what her father says to her and that she’s relieved that the hardest part for her is over, she gets the sense that things aren’t going to be the same in her house again.
Everything was good.
But it was awful, too.
God, shit is getting so real.
CH. 34: THE SLEEPER
We switch the narrative away from focusing on the dire need to address the obvious reality of Max’s stay at the Hubermann household to Max and Liesel’s interaction. And despite that Max is asleep for three days and we are still seeing everything through Liesel’s eyes, the focus never strays too far from what Max has gone through. Liesel is fascinated by Max, initially because he’s new to the house and he’s sleeping in her room. And he does so for three days, largely in total silence.
Sometimes, close to the end of the marathon of sleep, he spoke.
There was a recital of murmured names. A checklist.
Isaac. Aunt Ruth. Sarah. Mama. Walter. Hitler.
Family, friend, enemy.
As soon as I read this part, I thought about how there’s a man in Liesel’s room who is tormented by his past, such in a way that it affects his sleep. Hey, that’s like Liesel! I thought to myself, and while I appreciated the parallel and thought I was being all clever and shit, Zusak immediately proves he’s way ahead of me.
Liesel, in the act of watching, was already noticing the similarities between this stranger and herself. They both arrived in a state of agitation on Himmel Street. They both nightmared.
Well, drat! There goes my huge piece about the parallel between these two characters. I am shaking my fist at you, Zusak!
The time comes when Max inevitably has to wake up, and when he does, Liesel happens to be right next to him, and in a panic of disorientation, he reaches out to her before she can back away, grabbing her arm, pleading with her for no discernible reason.
His voice also held on, as if possessing fingernails. He pressed it into her flesh. “Papa!” Loud.
I don’t know what this moment means. I don’t have any clever insight. I can only imagine that there’s a subtext here, that maybe Max is begging Liesel not to tell anyone about him, or maybe he is begging for company or affection, or maybe he is just confused. It’s Hans who diffuses this situation, though.
When Papa came in, he first stood in the doorway and witnessed Max Vandenburg’s gripping fingers and his desperate face. Both held on to Liesel’s arm. “I see you two have met,” he said.
Max’s fingers started cooling.
So now the real question is: How is Liesel going to deal with having Max Vandenburg in her life?