In the thirty-ninth through forty-second chapters of The Book Thief, Rudy and Liesel find comfort in each other during a difficult time in both their lives, turning to theft again. Liesel finally earns her moniker during a trip back to the mayor’s mansion as well. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Book Thief.
CH. 39: RUDY’S YOUTH
It’s actually kind of distracting to read these chapters because now I know the ending. This might be the very first time I have ever had a book spoiled by…the book itself? It’s so new, I don’t even have the words to describe it. THIS IS SO BIZARRE. But it’s sort of like revisiting something you’ve read or watched before and seeing how a death casts a certain brand of sadness over everything the character does and says. Everything they say or do is painfully ironic or seems to suggest foreshadowing, even if it never intended to.
With Rudy, the contrast between his youth and his death is undeniable. Like I said: It’s distracting. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a bad thing, since I know I still don’t have all the pieces. I might get to a point where I realize that Death spoiling me was actually rather brilliant. So I’ll wait until much later to see how this plays out.
* * * A PORTRAIT OF RUDY STEINER * * *
Strings of mud clench his face. His tie
is a pendulum, long dead in its clock.
His lemon, lamp-lit hair is disheveled
and he wears a sad, absurd smile.
He stood a few meters from the step and spoke with great conviction, great joy.
“Alles ist Scheisse,” he announced.
All is shit.
If he lived, Rudy Steiner totally would have been in a hardcore band, RIGHT? Joke aside, I love this: “His tie is a pendulum, long dead in its clock.” So good!
We get the chance through a lot of this to get Rudy’s perspective in the story, which makes me wonder who else Zusak will focus on once he’s gone from the story. (Again, I really want a whole section from Rosa’s eyes, as Zusak seems to be ignoring that entirely, and I think it would be a great addition to all of this.)
In a way, Rudy is also hiding part of his life from the rest of the world, just like Liesel is. In his case, his meetings with the Hitler Youth are…well, they are disastrous, to say the least. But Zusak brings back Tommy Müller, the young boy whose ear infections affect his ability to hear, and it’s a subtle way he demonstrates the intrinsic hatred of the disabled in this specific culture. While there’s no mention of the Sterilization Law or cleansing or Action T4 anywhere in this chapter, we learn that Tommy’s loss of hearing prevents him from hearing the commands shouted out at him during group marching.
It was his left ear, I think. That was the most troublesome of the two, and when the bitter cry of “Halt!” wet the ears of everybody else, Tommy marched comically and obliviously on. He could transform a marching line into a dog’s breakfast in the blink of an eye.
That’s when we meet Franz Deutscher, the Hitler Youth leader, who shows us how it’s perfectly acceptable to act without empathy or understanding towards Tommy Müller:
That was when Rudy stepped forward. He faced Franz Deutscher, looking up at him. “He’s got a problem, sir—“
“I can see that!”
“With his ears,” Rudy finished. “He can’t—“
“Right, that’s it.” Deutscher rubbed his hands together. “Both of you—six laps of the grounds.” They obeyed, but not fast enough. “Schnell!” His voice chased him.
It’s a small moment, but it highlights even the most subtle desire for perfection. And for Franz, Tommy doesn’t fit that model and he is inferior because of it. And reading of how Franz makes them do a push up while faceplanting into the mud suggests that this is how he views Tommy and how he feels for Rudy, who stuck up for him.
There’s also a strange, youthful moment later in the day when Liesel sits and listen to Rudy explain what happened to him and Tommy:
“Tommy, please.” There was a peculiar look of contentment on Rudy’s face. Liesel had never seen someone so miserable yet so wholeheartedly alive. “Just sit there and—twitch—or something,” and he continued with the story.
He wrestled his tie.
I’m not sure I understand exactly what this means, but I get the sense that Rudy just got a taste of the rush that comes with disobeying authority. Now, I could be completely wrong about this one, but they way he refuses to let Tommy speak and seems to derive joy from what just happened…I don’t know, Rudy is definitely glad he stuck up for Tommy. But could it be entirely for a selfish reason?
This chapter ends with Rudy, once again, asking Liesel for a kiss, getting denied as he always is.
A disconcerting mixture of mud and pity was one thing, but kissing Rudy Steiner was something entirely different.
Then, for just two paragraphs, we leap two years into the future, and Liesel is writing in the basement of her house:
In the basement, just over two years later, Liesel ached sometimes to go next door and see him, even if she was writing in the early hours of morning. She also realized it was most likely those sodden days at the Hitler Youth that had fed his, and subsequently her own, desire for crime.
And that’s when we segue into the stories of their pursuit of crime and theft.
CH. 40: THE LOSERS
As Liesel and Rudy try to return to their normal habits and places to satisfy their desire for theft, they find that things have not remained the same for them. Arthur Berg, for one, is gone, and in his place, a new leader has stepped up: Viktor Chemmel.
Unlike most people engaged in the various arts of thievery, Viktor Chemmel had it all. He lived in the best part of Molching, high up in a villa that had been fumigated when the Jews were driven out. He had money. He had cigarettes. What he wanted, however, was more.
“No crime in wanting a little more,” he claimed, lying back in the grass with a collection of boys assembled around him. “Wanting more is our fundamental right as Germans. What does our Führer say?” He answered his own rhetoric. “We must take what is rightfully ours!”
I almost feel like I don’t need to say it, but I’m going to anyway: I don’t like Viktor Chemmel. Wow, what a load of bullshit wrapped into an opportunistic, misogynistic creep. He’s quick to insult Rudy and call Liesel a “whore” and a “slut” in any context imaginable, disbelieving their ability to steal anything at all, and HE DOESN’T NEED TO STEAL. Liesel and Rudy are at the bottom rung of the social/economic chain and yet THIS DUDE “just wants more.” Eat it. I refuse to like you.
Viktor lit a cigarette and raised it to his mouth. He made a concerted effort to blow his next mouthful in Liesel’s face.
Liesel did not cough.
Did you know that once upon a time, someone actually did this to me. And yes, it was an attempt to bully me, too. It was so ridiculous that I laughed. (Well, it was funny and I did laugh, but I was also trying to mask my cough because I am nowhere near as tough as Liesel Meminger is.)
Anyway, I wasn’t feeling too good about the two of them deciding to pair up with Viktor, and I was glad to see it vocalized on the pages, too:
Liesel only knew that Arthur Berg did not have a tyrannical bone in his body, whereas the new leader had hundreds of them. Last year, she knew that if she was stuck in a tree, Arthur would come back for her, despite claiming oterhwise. This year, by comparison, she was instantly aware that Viktor Chemmel wouldn’t even bother to look book.
Of a few reasons, this is probably the main one for justifying why this whole endeavor is a truly awful idea, especially since we know something in this story is going to lead to Rudy’s death. Now, I can’t possibly connect the dots from Viktor Chemmel to Rudy’s death-by-bomb, but I couldn’t help but wonder if Rudy would get in trouble in a way that would eventually put him in a place to get killed in the way that he is.
The output is immensely disappointing, though, as the farms of Germany are suffering the effects of the war as well. By the end of their trip (which was TEN MILES LONG GOOD GOD), Liesel and Rudy are given but one apple apiece. Of course, Rudy is a tad incensed at the concept, but when he stands up to Viktor, Viktor proves that he is in control of this group of thieves.
She did not have time, for Viktor Chemmel was on top of Rudy before she could utter a word. His knees had pinned Rudy’s arms and his hands were around his throat. The apples were scooped up by none other than Andy Schmeikl, at Viktor’s request.
“You’re hurting him,” Liesel said.
“Am I?” Viktor was smiling again. She hated that smile.
As Rudy tries to state that Viktor isn’t actually hurting him, blood begins to pour from his nose, leading to Rudy inevitably having to concede his losses here. Viktor is physically larger than him and while Rudy is a physical boy himself, he can’t win against this one.
When Viktor tells Rudy to go away, though, Rudy takes a moment to spit blood and saliva at his feet, prompting Viktor to claim, “You’ll pay for that at a later date, my friend.”
Say what you will about Viktor Chemmel, but he certainly had patience and a good memory. It took him approximately five months to turn his statement into a true one.
Ugh, why is this somehow worse than knowing Rudy is going to die? DEATH, STOP SPOILING YOUR OWN STORY, IT IS QUITE STRESSFUL.
CH. 41: SKETCHES
For a brief moment, Zusak switches over to Max Vandenburg to give us an insight into his summer in 1941. In a way, it seems that the same things that are overwhelming Liesel and Rudy are leaving Max feeling a tad neglected, at least more so than usual.
In those moments, those days that blend together to form simple blocks of undistinguishable time, Max turns to writing and drawing. Initially, Max wanted to tell his own story for Liesel, an animated book of sorts, but finds that random, seemingly unconnected thoughts of a life he’s never lived are all the more compelling to him:
It was a collection of random thoughts and he chose to embrace them. They felt true. They were more real than the letters he wrote to his family and to his friend Walter Kugler, knowing very well that he could never send them. The desecrated pages of Mein Kampf were becoming a series of sketches, page after page, which to him summed up the events that had swapped his former life for another. Some took minutes. Others hours. He resolved that when the book was finished, he’d give it to Liesel, when she was old enough, and hopefully, when all this nonsense was over.
Like The Standover Man, Zusak includes two of the actual sketches themselves, which give us insight into this alternate reality where Hitler is a conductor and a pile of bodies with a swastika sun are good days to have. I understand the humor present, but Liesel…not so much. Liesel discovers these while Max is sleeping, but she’s not as enamored with these as the first book that he gave her. When he startles her by waking up, she has a brief epiphany about what just happened:
“Holy Christ,” Liesel gasped. “You scared me, Max.”
He returned to his sleep, and behind her, the girl dragged the same thought up the steps.
You scared me, Max.
The images that Max made frightened her, possibly the first time since he arrived that he was able to actually scare her. Which…damn, I don’t like it.
CH. 42: THE WHISTLER AND THE SHOES
Rudy Steiner reaches his breaking point in chapter forty-two, and up to this point, we’ve seen how easy it is for him to make a joke out everything, to seemingly come up with a way to cope with all of the horrible things that happen to him and his family. But Franz Deutscher goes too far for Rudy, forcing him to go down in the mud as he does every day, only this time the mud is actually cow manure. Smelly, dirty, and full of bitter shame, he goes to his best friend, Liesel Meminger. But this is not just to tell her what happened. He has something else in mind:
Careful and quiet, he spoke. “You know what would cheer me up?”
Liesel cringed. “If you think I’m going to—in that state…”
He seemed disappointed in her. “No, not that.” He sighed and stepped closer. “Something else.” After a moment’s thought, he raised his head, just a touch. “Look at me. I’m filthy. I stink like cow shit, or dog shit, whatever your opinion, and as usual, I’m absolutely starving.” He paused. “I need a win, Liesel. Honestly.”
It’s a surprisingly raw moment for Rudy. I’ve always felt that he keeps a wall built up around himself, even when he’s with Liesel, but this feels so vulnerable of him to say.
She’d have gone closer but for the smell of him.
They had to steal something.
They had to steal something back. It didn’t matter what. It needed only to be soon.
My first thought is that the two of them would try to steal something from Viktor Chemmel and that made me think that that would be a HORRIBLE IDEA with too much potential for a disaster. A painful disaster.
But Liesel agrees to the next day: They’ll get their revenge, they’ll get that win for Rudy. However, what that win is going to be is not as easy to figure out. Apple stealing wasn’t all that victorious when they did it with the group of thieves, and neither of them imagine that they’ll have any sort of success visiting the same farms again. When Rudy suggests Frau Diller, offering to Heil Hitler and then steal, the suggestion falls flat. It’s just not what he had in mind.
Liesel is the one to take the reins on this little journey of hers and oh boy, it’s a doozy:
At that very moment, Liesel was presented with a decision. Could she truly carry out what she was thinking? Could she really seek revenge on a person like this? Could she despise someone this much?
There’s really only one person that Liesel feels this much vitriol for, so it was pretty obvious to me that Frau Hermann was going to be the target, or maybe just the mayor in general. I also think that we’re witnessing Liesel enacting revenge—or at least her version of it—with what happens next. Well…not quite next, as her and Rudy arrive at the Mayor’s mansion to discover that the window to the library is not open as it normally is. Liesel calls the theft off immediately, knowing that’s her only real entrance into the mansion without going right in through the front door.
It takes a full week for the opportunity to present itself, and Rudy can hardly contain his excitement when he realizes why Liesel was putting off the theft. But…well, Rudy only sort of understands what Liesel is doing. She has plans of her own:
She didn’t care about the food. Rudy, no matter how hard she tried to resist the idea, was secondary to her plan. It was the book she wanted. The Whistler. She would tolerate having it given to her by a lonely, pathetic old woman. Stealing it, on the other hand, seemed a little more acceptable. Stealing it, in a sick kind of sense, was like earning it.
And such is the recipe for disaster. I mean, as far as I’m aware so far, this doesn’t end up as one, which is a miracle in and of itself. But Liesel’s stubborn grudge (which is fairly justified, I must admit) leads her to believe that she’s a whole lot safer in her actions than she actually is. I think this also goes back to my worrying about Rudy and Liesel thieving in general, just because they are getting mighty close to being recklessly greedy about it.
That act of recklessness starts here, when Liesel and Rudy head up to the mansion as quietly as possible. Right before climbing up into the window, Rudy insists that Liesel take her shoes off, which, at the time, was certainly brilliant, as it softens the blow of her landing on the wooden floor inside the library. I found it funny that Rudy, right outside the window, starts harking on Liesel to find food and cigarettes, yet he has no idea her brain is already heading straight to the location of The Whistler. WHICH ISN’T WHERE IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE and then Rudy sees the light go out upstairs and they both know that the occupants are heading downstairs and EVERYTHING IS AWFUL.
But Liesel gets what she came for: that book that she initially rejected from Frau Hermann, now, in her mind, rightfully hers to own. Escaping just in time to avoid getting caught, Rudy quickly figures out that Liesel’s motives the whole time had nothing to do with him. But before he can express anger (which is fairly justified, I must also admit), Liesel realizes that in their rush to leave, Rudy left her shoes on the wall outside the house. YEAH. OOPS.
Rudy brings them back, after a short period of Liesel believing he got caught, and their relationship grows just a tad bit stronger in the moment that follows:
Sitting on the ground, she looked up at her best friend. “Danke,” she said. “Thank you.”
Rudy bowed. “My pleasure.” He tried for a little more. “No point asking if I get a kiss for that, I guess?”
He’s so persistent! Liesel denies this, again, claiming that he did leave her shoes behind in the first place, so they walk off as Rudy continues to talk about the kiss.
“You disgust me,” she informed him, and she hoped he couldn’t see the escaped beginnings of a smile that had fallen from her mouth.
All together now: AAAWWWWWWWWWWWWW. I’d almost say this gives me hope for them, not necessarily because I ship them or anything, but because they really are fantastic friends to each other. But then I remember Death spoils everything and I shake my fist in his general direction.
Before they went into their respective homes, Rudy stopped a moment and said, “Goodbye, Saumensch.” He laughed. “Good night, book thief.”
It was the first time Liesel had been branded with her title, and she couldn’t hide the fact that she liked it very much. As we’re both aware, she’d stolen books previously, but in late October 1941, it became official. That night, Liesel Meminger truly became the book thief.
Made all the more sad by the fact that Rudy is the one to name her this and THE DUDE DIES. Sigh.