In the sixty-seventh and sixty-eighth chapters of The Book Thief, Liesel is finally given the gift that Max prepared for her, and she gives a gift of sorts to Rudy Steiner. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Book Thief.
I’d like to think that purpose of Mark Reads (and, to an extent, Mark Watches) boils down to an appreciation of the written word. (That’s why it’s only to an extent with television, which starts off with the written word, but the medium takes it elsewhere.) I’ve told the stories enough times over the last year and a half, but some of it bears repeating. I started reading at a young age and by the time I was ten, I was trying to emulate whomever I was obsessed with at the time. It started off with Edgar Allan Poe, then my youthful obsession with R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, and then I tried my best at creating grandiose character studies during my obsession with Jane Austen and Dostoevsky. None of it quite felt more than a cheap imitation, and none of it ever satisfied the pangs of creativity inside of me. My style developed those last two years of high school and, despite that I didn’t know it at the time, evolved more towards a staccato, rhythmic tone, with sharp, jagged sentences, sometimes spilling into lengthy diatribes of diction and grammar if it felt right. I took cues from Camus, but for a while, I thought I was a ~totally special snowflake~ until I read Palahniuk and Cormac McCarthy and Alice Munro and realized I wasn’t really doing anything that special anyway.
Still, I struggle to find my voice and I know that, at the very least, I’ve found a cathartic release in my writing. I know that my words hold power, even if no one reads them, and that’s a good place for me to be in as a writer. I’ve always appreciated the extent to which words have played such an integral part of my entire growth as a person, and it’s easy for me to look back at my hardest times and pick out books, lyrics, or things I wrote at the time (WHICH WERE TRULY AWFUL, BY THE WAY) that got me through those moment.
At the same time, I know that words also hold the power to harm or twist our perception of events and other people, and sometimes it’s just the placement of them that can do something subtle and sinister within our subconscious. I’m glad I started off with the Twilight series for the Mark Does Stuff INTERNET EMPIRE because it was like the very best training grounds for hyper-analyzing literature with a critical and analytical eye. I was thinking this past weekend how easy AP Lit and AP Language would be for me these days because I basically write a six page paper per day on just one chapter of a book. Seriously, guys, if I went back to school, I would be a paper-writing machine. Maybe I should just do that as a job for shitty college students.
OK ANYWAY, THAT IS NOT THE POINT. The point is that I’ve always wanted to be specific and pedantic about books and literature, and this site allows me to do that with a whole lot of others who enjoy doing the same thing. We appreciate words in a different way than others do. This does not mean we enjoy words in a better way. It’s just different, it suits our needs, and it pleases our intellect. The end! And I like that it’s this simple for me, because then I can enjoy other things in my life in ridiculously simplistic ways. Like eating food. Or sleeping. mmmmm sleeeeppppp.
I mean, there are other aspects to this whole absurd venture that I’m on that are far more meta that explain why this is so fun to me, but at heart, I love words. And I love (and fear) what they can do. The Book Thief uses that very concept to build its emotional core, and it’s words that seem to save these characters, time and time again.
I just vomited out seven hundred words because I stared at an empty page for fifteen minutes, hoping I’d get an email or a text message to occupy my time, fiddling with the settings in the hopes that some thought would spark deep in brain, and I’d figure out a way to talk about The Word Shaker that wasn’t just a blubbering of praise and sadness mixed in with my watery eyes. No one I ever knew on a personal level ever wrote a book specifically for and about me the way that Max Vandenburg does for Liesel. But I think about my intricate and emotional attachments to authors like Albert Camus or Alice Munro or Arundhati Roy or Edgar Allan Poe or Carson McCullers and there’s a part of me that will always believe that their books were for me. Of course these people will never know me. I don’t play a single part of their novels. But it’s the closest I’ll come to a spiritual experience, and it’s the closest I’ll come to feeling like I’m not alone.
For Liesel, that author is Max Vandenburg, and just before Christmas in 1942, Rosa Hubermann realizes it’s time for her to receive Max’s sketchbook, the one she swore to herself she wouldn’t read until she was supposed to.
“He said to give this to you when you were ready,” she said. “I was thinking your birthday. Then I brought it back to Christmas.” Rosa Hubermann stood and there was a strange look on her face. It was not made up of pride. Perhaps it was the thickness, the heaviness of recollection. She said, “I think you’ve always been ready, Liesel. From the moment you arrived here, clinging to that gate, you were meant to have this.”
How poetic of Rosa. She speaks the truth, admittedly, because Max and Liesel share a disconnected form of sorrow that they both try to escape using their words. In that sense, this sketchbook was always hers.
Liesel held it with soft hands. She stared. “Thanks, Mama.”
She embraced her.
There was also a great longing to tell Rosa Hubermann that she loved her. It’s a shame she didn’t say it.
The missed opportunities of the small moments. It made me realize that we haven’t seen Liesel tell her mother that she loves her, and I desperately hope that this isn’t foreshadowing for some awful moment to come.
The vast majority of chapter sixty-seven is Zusak’s inclusion of bits and pieces of Max’s book, The Word Shaker, and the full text of the titular story. He starts off describing some of the sketches and brief stories and it’s then that I know I am thankful that he normally includes that actual drawings and writings themselves. I want to read The Word Shaker from cover to cover. Thankfully, we do get all of “The Word Shaker” itself, placed after stories about the basement and Max’s family.
Liesel–I almost scribbled this story out. I thought you might be too old for such a tale, but maybe no one is. I thought of you and your books and words, and this strange story came into my head. I hope you can find some good in it.
Surprisingly, the story of “The Word Shaker” is Max’s version of a fairy tale, inserting both Liesel and himself into all of it. Dedicated to the power Liesel’s words have had over Max’s life, it’s a tale of how words can save people just as much as they can harm them.
He opens the story with visual references to the Führer:
There was once a strange, small man. He decided three important details about his life:
- He would part his hair from the opposite side to everyone else.
- He would make himself a small, strange mustache.
- He would one day rule the world.
Using these visual cues, Max almost…disassociates from the reality of it? It’s not to say that Max doesn’t understand what he’s doing or that the’s hiding the true terror of this man from anyone. I was impressed with the way that you could take this out of this book and it still seemed like an actual fairy tale based solely on one man’s imagination.
But that would be disingenuous to what this story is. As Max chronicles this “strange, small man” on his path towards world domination, he also recognizes exactly how he came to hide in the basement of 33 Himmel Street for twenty-two months: Words.
It’s simplistic, yes, but it’s because of the focus that Max chooses to use here to make a point:
Yes, the Führer decided that he would rule the world with words. “I will never fire a gun,” he devised. “I will not have to.” Still, he was not rash. Let’s allow him at least that much. He was not a stupid man at all. His first plan of attack was to plant the words in as many areas of his homeland as possible.
While Max doesn’t ever openly talk about the propaganda used to control the tide of the German republic, he doesn’t need to. He knows from experience how words and ideas were used against him to control how people felt simply because he was one specific word–“Jew”–and why that word was an evil, dirty thing.
He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany …. It was a nation of farmed thoughts.
I love that Max chooses to use the visual metaphor of a forest here. Words like this are grown in a specific manner, and it fits that he would use trees like this. It also allows him to extrapolate this extended metaphor to use the concept of a production line that dumps thoughts into the German citizens, making them pre-packaged victims of Words.
(Question: Are the sketches/drawings in your copies of the book really, really small? They are so tiny in my Kindle version that I can’t really make them out that well, which is why I’m not commenting on them. TRAGEDY.)
Max elaborates on the idea of a word shaker in this tale: as more and more words are needed by the Führer, people are employed to climb into the trees and throw them down from the branches. But not just anyone could be a word shaker:
The best word shakers were the ones who understood the true power of words. They were the ones who could climb the highest. One such word shaker was a small, skinny girl. She was renowned as the best word shaker in her region because she knew how powerless a person could be WITHOUT words.
And this is when the story takes a turn for the gut-wrenching, not because the content of any of this is sad. It’s not in the slightest. It’s the context we all know that breaks my heart, because we know that Max was without words when he first came to that basement on 33 Himmel Street, and Liesel gave them to him. This collection would not exist without her. I know that if it wasn’t for the library, for certain teachers, for the occasional friend who would mention a book off-hand, and even for my mother, I would not be typing these words for anyone else to read either. That thought is really comforting to me.
One day, however, she met a man who was despised by her homeland, even though he was born in it. They became good friends, and when the man was sick, the word shaker allowed a single teardrop to fall on his face. The tear was made of friendship–a single word–and it dried and became a seed, and when the girl was in the forest, she planted that seed among the other trees. She watered it every day.
It’s at this point that I felt the bumps rise on my skin, completely emotionally taken by this story and my ability to relate to it, and this fairy tale stops being some imaginary story about people who never existed, and I know that for a lot of people, myself included, and perhaps even you, words have transformed lives into something more. This “tale” is about recognizing how this young girl has given Max a power he will never forget.
The “tree” in the story begins to grow until it’s the tallest in the forest, gaining the attention of the Führer, who orders that it be cut down. When the young word shaker begs him not to, he ignores her pleas and continues with the plan. Highlighting Liesel’s unending bravery, Max writes the young girl up into the tree, to the highest branches, anxiously awaiting the moment the tree would fall so she could fall with it.
But to everyone’s surprise, no one can make a dent in the tree. A second man tries to cut it down.
Weeks took over.
A hundred and ninety-six soldiers could not make any impact on the word shaker’s tree.
Amazing. Just unbelievable. It’s a literal metaphor for the power of Liesel’s words.
The seasons come and go and finally, the people below give up, telling the word shaker that she has won and that she can come down from the tree. But she remains:
“NO thank you,” she said, for she knew that it was only herself who was holding the tree upright.
But then another man comes to visit, this one much more tired than the rest, his “bag [looking] too heavy for him,” and I struggled to guess what this could mean. The people of Germany tell this man that the word shaker will not come down, that his efforts are futile, but he surprises them all when he pulls out a hammer. A hammer!
Driving nails into the tree, he climbs up to join the word shaker, and I then realize this last man is meant to be Max, the man who spawned this entire tree, and it made my throat constrict in that familiar way, because he was writing in their reunion, almost as if he knew they’d be separated. And I just missed Max, and I wished he didn’t have to leave 33 Himmel Street and take Max and Alex with him.
The story ends as the two of them finally leave the tree and it begins to show the marks of all the destruction the people had given it. It falls to the earth, cutting a path through the forest that is miles long.
But as they walked on, they stopped several times, to listen. They thought they could hear voices and words behind them, on the word shaker’s tree.
It’s a poetic end to a story, and as Liesel reflects on the weight of it all, wondering where Max might be “in all that forest out there.”
It was hours later, when she woke up, that the answer to her question came. “Of course,” she whispered. “Of course I know where he is,” and she went back to sleep.
She dreamed of the tree.
MY GODDAMN CREYS.
CH. 68: THE ANARCHIST’S SUIT COLLECTION
Christmas Eve arrives in Molching, and the Steiners ask Rosa, Trudy (I FORGOT ABOUT HER), and Liesel over to have one large Christmas celebration, since the fathers are gone. Liesel, completely entranced with The Word Shaker and the gift that Max Vandenberg has given her, is inspired to pass on the sensation to someone else: Rudy Steiner.
Rudy’s familiar bitter humor bites back at Liesel’s claim that she has a gift for him. Well…will have a gift for him. He correctly senses that she wants to procure something by stealing, and the thought is just too intriguing to him.
“Do you have the key?” she asked.
“The key to what?” But it didn’t take Rudy long to understand. He made his way inside and returned not long after. In the words of Viktor Chemmel, he said, “It’s time to go shopping.”
I didn’t pick up on this clue until it was spelled out for me, but I also wasn’t aware there was still stuff inside of Alex Steiner’s store. Like all of Rudy and Liesel’s stealing adventures, things start off a little rough, and Rudy’s sense of humor is there to break the tension:
In the middle of the exchange, Liesel tripped on a bump in the floor. A mannequin follwed her down. It groped her arm and dismantled in its clothes on top of her. “Get this thing off me!” It was in four pieces. The torso and head, the legs, and two separate arms. When she was rid of it, Liesel stood and wheezed. “Jesus, Mary.”
Rudy found one of the arms and tapped her on the shoulder with its hand. When she turned in fright, he extended it in friendship. “Nice to meet you.”
Ugh, I want to be best friends with Rudy. Seriously!
They continued slowly in the dark store before Rudy finally decides to run out of the store and return with a lantern from the church. Thievery to assist their thievery. I love it. He demands that Liesel show him what this “gift” is for him. She begins to cycle through the suits hanging near her until she finds a navy blue one, holding it in front of Rudy.
Her gift is a suit for Rudy, whose clothes are always torn and filthy. Bless her heart.
After trying it on and trading some of his expected banter with Liesel, he lunges toward her for some reason, tripping over the mannequin pieces and landing on the floor.
Liesel rushed over.
She crouched above him
Kiss him, Liesel, kiss him.
“Are you all right, Rudy? Rudy?”
AHHH LIESEL, JUST DO IT!
“I miss him,” said the boy, sideways, across the floor.
“Frohe Weihnachten,” Liesel replied. She helped him up, straightening the suit. “Merry Christmas.”
I have a feeling this is the last Christmas they’ll ever spend together. Oh boy.