In the forty-third and forty-fourth chapters of The Book Thief, we learn how Rudy comes to be physically and mentally harmed by the world around him, and how he ends up in a river with a floating book. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Book Thief.
So here’s the thing about Rudy Steiner and Death: despite having been spoiled about his death, I’m now starting to see why that spoiler is not at all as disruptive as it may have initially seemed. I think a lot of us who love reading enjoy the journey the most, and sometimes when a moment of finality twists the plot in a direction like this, where someone dies, that’s generally not the moment we return to in our thoughts when we think about the book again. For me, I’ll return to the moments of shenaniganry between Liesel and Rudy. I’ll return to the moment when Rudy doesn’t hesitate to leap into the freezing cold river to save Liesel’s book, uncaring about his own safety. Death even said it: How we get to Rudy’s death is invariably far more interesting to me. I’m much more fascinated by the machinations of action and behavior that lead to where we eventually end up, even if, by the end of section five, it leaves me feeling heartbroken for Rudy.
Calling Rudy “reckless,” as I have done in the past few reviews, simplifies his actions and his motivations a bit too much for me, and it took these two chapters for me to get a much fuller picture of Rudy Steiner. In a way, as well, “reckless” is an understatement; he’s more destructive at times than anything else. But even that also seems far too simplistic as well. Rudy’s fiercely loyal, to his own fault at times, and he lets his heart rule his actions instead of shooting for practicality. In that sense, I completely relate to him, as I’m someone who has the tendency to do what I feel is right, even if it is at my own expense. Throughout these two chapters, we see Rudy’s moral force clash with a world that rejects what he thinks is right.
CH. 43: THREE ACTS OF STUPIDITY BY RUDY STEINER
I think we can easily see three examples of Rudy acting against pragmatic logic in order to do something that’s right for himself or for someone else. While I’ve been increasingly worried about Rudy’s theft getting the better of him, I do understand that he’s largely motivated by hunger and poverty.
Rudy is caught relatively quickly one afternoon when he tries to steal the largest potato at Mamer’s grocery. Like the moment when Rudy tells Liesel he needs a “win” in his life, the vulnerability in his voice saddens me, as I feel Rudy thinks he’s expected to be as tough as he can at all times.
The grocer held Rudy in one hand and the potato in the other. He called out the dreaded word to his wife. “Polizei.”
“No,” Rudy begged, “please.” He would later tell Liesel later on that he was not the slightest bit afraid, but his heart was certainly bursting at that moment, I’m sure. “Not the police. Please, not the police.”
“Polizei.” Mamer remained unmoved as the boy wriggled and fought with the air.
I believed while reading this that this was the moment that would propel Rudy to be in the position that would lead to his death, but, instead, I was pleasantly surprised by the display of empathy that happens after this. But not from Mamer, incidentally, who seems bent on making an example out of Rudy. No, it’s the people in the shop who not only confirm to Mamer that Rudy is indeed poor, but lie and say his family is actually much larger than it is.
Rudy had to hold back a smile, though he wasn’t in the clear yet. At least he had the teacher lying now. He’d somehow managed to add three more children to the Steiner family.
“Often, he comes to school without breakfast,” and the crowd of women was conferring again. It was like a coat of paint on the situation, adding a little extra potency and atmosphere.
“So that means he should be allowed to steal my potatoes?”
“The biggest one!” one of the women ejaculated!
“Keep quiet, Frau Metzing,” Mamer warned her, and she quickly settled down.
OH MY GOD, I LOVE ALL OF THESE PEOPLE. How unexpected is this? I guess I just expected people to turn on him or, at the very least, just keep quiet. But because these people spoke up, Mamer, lets Rudy go, merely telling him not to come back.
For Rudy, it was yet another failure.
Still, for Rudy, he knows he can’t get a break, and one “failure” after another starts to dampen his general outlook, and I think that’s what motivates him to confront Franz Deutscher in the way that he does. Of course, it’s a foolish thing to do, and Rudy knows it, but he’s also acutely aware of just the kind of person Franz is. Maybe there’s a part of Rudy that recognizes that these things might give Franz the joy to harm someone else, but they also irritate the hell out of him. And maybe that’s the only sort of victory that Rudy can have at this point in his life.
Franz simply waits for the chance to create even the most mediocre of justifications for singling out Tommy and Rudy, and it seems he gets way too many chances, but in this particular instance, Rudy goads him on purposely. As Franz bothers Rudy with trivia regarding Hitler (specifically, his birthdate), Rudy answers:
…the birth of Christ. He even threw in Bethlehem as an added piece of information.
Bless your heart forever, Rudy. Yes, he’s definitely giving Franz what he wants, but I can’t help and laugh at how defiant and silly Rudy is. It’s lovely.
Seven laps and six wrong answers later, he gives the right answer, but Franz doesn’t take out his real frustration for a few days, when he comes across Rudy, Liesel, Tommy, and Tommy’s sister in the streets. Like most of the bullies I’ve come across in my life, Franz always seems to be with a pack, and I actually don’t know if I was ever bullied by a person who did things alone, now that I think of it. What I didn’t do, however, was ever incite bullying in the way that Rudy does, though there’s definitely a part of me that wishes I had purposely aggravated and stood up to my bullies. I didn’t, though, until after I left high school.
(Sidenote, completely unrelated, really, to this book. For anyone who was bullied in high school or junior high or whenver, has Facebook essentially facilitated these people contacting you many years later? And, like my experience, do these people treat you as if they never bullied you in the first place? Or am I alone in this one? Just curious. I’ve always wanted to know.)
I don’t know that Franz really needs any more context to his bullying. He’s a boy who has power. That power is from a variety of sources, from being male, to being in a position of authority in the Hitler Youth, to being physically more intimidating than Rudy, and he uses all of them at once here. It’s actually pretty hard to read this section because it feels so familiar to me. I can remember being held down in bathrooms or locker rooms or out behind the soccer signposts on the field in junior high, feeling the same mixture of terror and fury that Rudy feels here. But I didn’t fight back in any way in those days, so when Franz’s fist connects with Rudy’s face and he falls to the floor, feeling the pain spread through his face and the rest of his body, it wasn’t hard for me to imagine myself in that place as well.
It’s weird, because I don’t find it…triggery or anything. It doesn’t upset me. I just think it’s another sign that Zusak is a talented writer. It’s not easy to create things like this and have them feel so realistic. And I don’t even have the same experience as Rudy does, obviously, but it feels…right? Ok, not like THIS IS A THING IN THE UNIVERSE THAT IS RIGHT AND HOLY, but it’s either something Zusak knows from experience or knows secondhand. Or he truly is as good a writer as he’s shown us in these pages.
Despite it’s lack of practicality, I am glad that Rudy stops going to the Hitler Youth meetings. After Franz beats him up and cuts off large parts of his hair, Rudy correctly believes that Franz is simply dangerous to be around. Merely going to those meetings would be a threat to his personal wellbeing. It’s just unfortunate that not going has such dangerous ramifications for other people:
First, his parents threatened him. He didn’t attend.
They begged him to go. He refused.
Eventually, it was the opportunity to join a different division that swayed Rudy in the right direction. This was fortunate, because if he didn’t show his face soon, the Steiners would be fined for his non-attendance.
And we know that the Steiners literally could not afford such a thing, which is why this whole situation is so unfortunate for Rudy.
His older brother, Kurt, inquired as to whether Rudy might join the Flieger Division, which specialized in the teaching of aircraft and flying. Mostly, they built model airplanes, and there was no Franz Deutscher. Rudy accepted, and Tommy also joined. It was the one time in his life that his idiotic behavior delivered beneficial results.
But it’s still not quite the win that Rudy wants. That comes soon, however.
CH. 44: THE FLOATING BOOK (Part II)
In a moment of pure chance in December, Liesel and Rudy come upon Franz Deutscher again while walking home. Knowing they both don’t want to be witness and victim to his particular brand of sadistic bullying, they quickly re-route in another direction, unfortunately heading straight to another group of people that are just as equally threatening: Viktor Chemmel. I’d forgotten that Death had told us that Viktor would get his revenge on Rudy in five months’ time. In doing so, Death also completes the story of the “floating book” that opened Part Five, as we learn why Rudy is in that river chasing a book.
Viktor is quick to pull Liesel’s copy of The Whistler out of her hand and despite that she tries to hide its importance, Viktor realizes that it’s something that means something to her. He has no idea where it came from or how Liesel came to possess or how it signifies the moment she got her moniker either. He just knows he can harm Liesel AND Rudy by taking it and tossing it in the river.
There’s no hesitation on Rudy’s part to chase after the book and harm himself in the process to retrieve it:
Liesel, slowing to a walk, could see the ache of each step. The painful cold.
I don’t really need to explain how close these two have grown together, so I’d rather talk about what this means for Rudy, which Death spells out in another one of his asides:
* * * THE FROZEN MOTIVES * * *
OF RUDY STEINER
1. After months of failure, this moment was his only
chance to revel in some victory.
2. Such a position of selfishness was a good place
to ask Liesel for the usual favor.
How could she possibly turn him down?
“How about a kiss, Saumensch?”
So, are you ready to have your guts punched out?
He stood waist-deep in the water for a few moments longer before climbing out and handing her the book. His pants clung to him, and he did not stop walking. In truth, I think he was afraid. Rudy Steiner was scared of the book thief’s kiss. He must have longed for it so much. He must have loved her so incredibly hard. So hard that he would never ask for her lips again and would go to his grace without them.
Thank you, Markus Zusak, for making me want to cry in just one paragraph. This is why Death says that Rudy didn’t deserve to die the way he did. Death could see the capacity of Rudy’s heart and it was a rare, beautiful thing.