In the sixty-ninth through seventy-second chapters of The Book Thief, the lives of Liesel Meminger and Hans Hubermann are further disrupted, as the war continues to grab hold even stronger than before. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Book Thief.
The pace of this book has suddenly sped up, and it makes me anxious because I know something is coming. What that thing is, I haven’t figured out. There’s no big mystery to this novel, and instead, I feel like I’m just waiting for history to collide with the people here. I know Rudy dies. I know that Hans will survive whatever it is that kills Reinhold Zucker. He might even come home? And I am convinced at this point that I’ll never see Max again. Despite all that, which would seem like a huge chunk of spoilers in any other book and in any other context, I still don’t know how this will all come together. One thing I am sure of: I am watching the pieces being assembled into place.
CH. 69: THE NEXT TEMPTATION
Like clockwork, Rudy and Liesel head to the mayor’s house to do a little thieving, and this time, Liesel is greeted with a couple surprises.
This time, there were cookies.
But they were stale.
They were Kipferl left over from Christmas, and they’d been sitting on the desk for at least two weeks. Like miniature horseshoes with a layer of icing sugar, the ones on the bottom were bolted to the plate. The rest were piled on top, forming a chewy mound. She could already smell them when her fingers tightened on the window ledge. The room tasted like sugar and dough, and thousands of pages.
All right, Liesel, I think it’s about time for you to stop sneaking in through the window and go in through the front door. Frau Hermann clearly was waiting for you, she has already outright acknowledged that she knows you are coming into the library and stealing her books. Or borrowing them. Or whatever. Just go through the front door.
They’d gone on foot that day because the road was too slippery for bikes. The boy was beneath the window, standing watch. When she called out, his face appeared, and she presented him with the plate. He didn’t need much convincing to take it.
His eyes feasted on the cookies and he asked a few questions.
“Anything else? Any milk?”
You Saumensch, Rudy. STOP BEING SO GREEDY. FREE COOKIES, DUDE.
This time, Liesel has the courtesy to at least leave Frau Hermann a thank you note, leaving it on top of the desk in the library. On her way out, she spots the book she decides to take: The Last Human Stranger.
At the window, just as she was about to make her way out, the library door creaked apart.
Her knee was up and her book-stealing hand was poised against the window frame. She she faced the noise, she found the mayor’s wife in a brand-new bathrobe and slippers. On the breast pocket of the robe sat an embroidered swastika. Propaganda even reached the bathrobe.
Oh, hell, Liesel. Please don’t tell me you’re going to avoid Frau Hermann again. You kind of can’t now! Thankfully she doesn’t, though I didn’t expect Liesel to give the mayor’s wife a “Heil Hitler” right off the bat. She is wearing a bathrobe with a swastika on it, so I suppose it makes sense.
Standing there awkwardly in front of the mayor’s wife, Liesel has a sudden realization about the place she’s in. Truthfully, I never even thought about it myself, and the revelation is a surprise to me because of that.
Or–and as soon as Liesel felt this thought, it filled her with a strange optimism–perhaps it wasn’t the mayor’s library at all; it wa shers. Ilsa Hermann’s.
She didn’t know why it was so important, but she enjoyed the fact that the roomful of books belonged to the woman. It was she who introduced her to the library in the first place and gave her the initial, even literal, window of opportunity. This way was better. It all seemed to fit.
I’m glad that Liesel takes a moment to speak with Frau Hermann, asking her if the room is indeed hers, which the mayor’s wife confirms. Rudy, unaware that the mayor’s wife is actually in the room, keeps interjecting every so often, too. For Liesel, though, who asks Ilsa Hermann about the book she’s picked up, she feels a strange pull to stay and talk to this woman. Maybe she has something to share, or maybe she just deserves it at this point.
She saw Rudy’s face in the window, or more to the point, his candlelit hair. “I think you’d better go,” she said. “He’s waiting for you.”
And as Rudy and Liesel eat the cookies on the way home, I wondered if the next time we’d see Ilsa Hermann, Liesel would finally enter through the front door. After all of this, I believe that the mayor’s wife has proven that she can be trusted.
CH. 70: THE CARDPLAYER
Switching over to Hans Hubermann, Death describes a brief scene between Hans and the soon-to-be-dead Reinhold Zucker. It gives us a small portrait of the downtown between raids in the war, and it also serves for Death to include a few necessary details to fill in the blanks about Hans avoiding death and Reinhold succumbing to it. Him. Whatever.
* * * SOME FACTS ABOUT * * *
He was twenty-four. When he won a round
of cards, he gloated–he would hold the
thin cylinders of tobacco to his nose and
breathe them in. “The smell of victory,”
he would say. Oh, and one more thing.
He would die with his mouth open.
Just when I think I’m ok with these asides and that I’m prepared for something Death has spoiled, he includes these little details, and I can’t seem to put my finger on why it’s so unsettling to me. Maybe even after all of this, the way Death is so matter-of-fact about people losing their lives is still a strange thing for me.
Here, though, we learn that Reinhold’s anger at Hans’s victories is what sets up his end.Hans never took all that he won when he played cards, sometimes returning a cigarette to each of his companions in the war. (HOW CUTE. SERIOUSLY.) But Reinhold is much too full of pride to accept something like this. He storms off, saying, “I don’t need your charity, old man.”
OK, NEGATIVE NANCY. Jesus, dude.
Had he not lost his cigarettes to Hans Hubermann, he wouldn’t have despised him. If he hadn’t despised him, he might not have taken his place a few weeks later on a fairly innocuous road.
One seat, two men, a short argument, and me.
It kills me sometimes, how people die.
Death, you are so witty. So, this is how Hans escapes Death a second time? He’s in the right place at the right time, it seems. Twice.
CH. 71: THE SNOWS OF STALINGRAD
It seems Zusak continues to increase the appearances of the war on Himmel Street, both as a way to advance the plot to its inevitable end and as a reminder to us all that this war is very real and we cannot hope that it won’t reach 33 Himmel Street. In a few ways, it already has: Rudy is gone. Max had to escape. Hans was forced to leave. But here, in chapter seventy-one, is the first example of the effects of war ending up right there on Himmel Street.
Heading to Frau Holtzapfel’s for another reading session, Liesel is shocked when someone else answers the door.
Her first thought was that the man must have been one of her sons, but he did not look like either of the brothers in the framed photos by the door. He seemed far too old, although it was difficult to tell. His face was dotted with whiskers and his eyes looked painful and loud. A bandaged hand fell out of his coat sleeve and cherries of blood were seeping through the wrapping.
“Perhaps you should come back later.”
My thoughts always go towards what I think is the worst, and, given the title of this chapter, I couldn’t help but think SOMEONE KILLED FRAU HOLTZAPFEL, which now, in hindsight, MAKES NO SENSE. And yet? What happens here is seriously so much worse.
Over three hours later, the same man comes to get Liesel, to tell her that now is a good time for her to read to Frau Holtzapfel.
Outside, in the fuzzy gray light, Liesel couldn’t help asking the man what had happened to his hand. He blew some air from his nostrils–a single syllable–before his reply. “Stalingrad.”
“Sorry?” He had looked into the wind when he spoke. “I couldn’t hear you.”
He answered again, only louder, and now, he answered the question fully. “Stalingrad happened to my hand. I was shot in the ribs and I had three of my fingers blown off. Does that answer your question?” He placed his uninjured hand in his pocket and shivered with contempt for the German wind.
GOOD GOD. But I’m still left wondering: Who is this man and why is he visiting Frau Holtzapfel?
“You think it’s cold here?”
Liesel touched the wall at her side. She couldn’t lie “Yes, of course.”
The man laughed. “This isn’t cold.”
Now, again, I don’t always think using Wikipedia as a source is a good thing, but it’s also not at all a bad thing to summarize concepts or events, so I’m going to ask you to take some time reading about the Battle of Stalingrad that this man is referring to, which will put his joke into a terrifying, depressing context. He’s not lying: That battle was cold.
There’s a strange scene here where Liesel helps the man light a cigarette, and I feel like it only exists for her to earn the man’s trust. Well, at least enough for him to properly introduce himself as Michael Holtzapfel, Frau Holtzapfel’s son. It’s not stated here, but it’s hard not to think back to Liesel’s first introduction to him, being unable to recognize because the war had aged him so much.
Before there’s any chance to take in this moment, Rosa Hubermann comes up behind them and “Liesel could feel the shock at her back.” I wouldn’t say Rosa makes small talk, but she is so surprised that she doesn’t say much of anything of substance. And that’s when Michael decides to drop the news at their feet.
“My brother’s dead,” said Michael Holtzapfel, and he could not have delivered the punch any better with his one usable fist. For Rosa staggered. Certainly, war meant dying, but it always shifted the ground beneath a person’s feet when it was someone who had once lived and breathed in close proximity. Rosa had watched both of the Holtzapfel boys grow up.
I’d say that death in general does that, and I had no real concept of it until a close friend who ran cross country and track with me died the year after he graduated, while I was a senior. I like that phrase Zusak uses: “…it always shifted the ground beneath a person’s feet…” That’s what it felt like. Exactly what it felt like. There was a loss of stability that you felt in your legs when the news hits.
Rosa, understandably, is shocked into near-silence by this news, and she and Michael agree it’s best to just take Liesel to Frau Holtzapfel to read. On the way there, Michael has a moment of guilt, possibly at slamming his brother’s death into Rosa’s chest, and he attempts to make her feel better:
“Rosa?” There was a moment of waiting while Mama rewidened the door. “I heard your son was there. In Russia. I ran into someone else from Molching and they told me. But I’m sure you knew that already.”
Rosa tried to prevent his exit. She rushed out and held his sleeve. “No. He left here one day and never came back. We tried to find him, but then so much happened, there was …”
Michael Holtzapfel was determined to escape. The last thing he wanted to hear was yet another sob story. Pulling himself away, he said, “As far as I know, he’s alive.”
THIS IS SO CRUSHING TO ME. Michael’s guilt inspires him to try to raise Rosa’s hope, and it essentially backfires. This is so horrible for everyone involved.
Frau Holtzapfel sat with wet streams of wire on her face.
Her son was dead.
But that was only the half of it.
OH GOD. YOU’RE GOING TO TELL ME, AREN’T YOU. I’m already heartbroken by the lot of this, and now I need details?
* * * A SMALL WAR STORY * * *
His legs were blown off at the
shins and he died with his
brother watching in a cold,
Death takes us to that day, January 5, 1943, another reminder of the sheer brutality of Stalingrad.
Out among the city and snow, there were dead Russians and Germans everywhere. Those who remained were firing into the blank pages in front of them. Three languages interwove. The Russian, the bullets, the German.
That is a gorgeous paragraph. Not the content, the way it is written. And Zusak continues in this disconnected diction, choosing a rare poetry in describing the mayhem here in the snow. I’m not going to include the actual physical descriptions of Robert’s death, or the man, Pieter, who crawls to him with an “itchy” stomach, because they’re a bit much for me. But Death was there, picking up so many souls, and even he is a bit surprised that he was so close to grabbing Robert Holtzapfel, but he doesn’t.
As Michael told his mother, it was three very long days later that I finally came for the soldier who left his feet behind in Stalingrad. I showed up very much invited at the temporary hospital and flinched at the smell.
A man with a bandaged hand was telling the mute, shock-faced soldier that he would survive. “You’ll soon be going home,” he assured him.
Yes, home, I thought. For good.
How unbearably sad this all is. I am dreading the moment when this happens to one of the people I’ve grown to enjoy in Molching, and I imagine that Rudy is going to be that first one.
In Frau Holtzapfel’s kitchen, Liesel read. The pages waded by unheared, and for me, when the Russian scenery fades in my eyes, the snow refuses to stop falling from that ceiling. The kettle is covered, as is the table. The humans, too, are wearing patches of snow on their heads and shoulders.
The brother shivers.
The woman weeps.
And the girl goes on reading, for that’s why she’s there, and it feels good to be good for something in the aftermath of the snows of Stalingrad.
Zusak, what are you doing to my heart? I don’t know how much more of this I can take.
CH. 72: THE AGELESS BROTHER
Despite that this chapter feels like a huge, redemptive moment for Liesel, I can’t help but feel morose about all of this. We are rapidly progressing to the end of this novel, and I’m kind of afraid to find out what’s there.
Liesel’s brother, Warner, represents a specific moment in time for her, obviously, but I think that he might also be a metaphor for her youth. Death opens up this chapter by reminding us that Liesel is approaching her fourteenth birthday, and I do not think this mention is just circumstance. She is a young woman, and she needs to leave things behind.
As she crossed the river, a rumor of sunshine stood behind the clouds.
At 8 Grande Strasse, she walked up the steps, left the plate by the front door, and knocked, and by the time the door was opened, the girl was around the corner. Liesel did not look back, but knew that if she did, she’d have found her brother at the bottom of the steps again, his knee completely healed. She could hear his voice.
“That’s better, Liesel.”
I think the detail that his knee is healed does it for me. It’s time for Liesel to move on.
It was with great sadness that she realized that her brother would be six forever, but when she held that thought, she also made an effort to smile.
ALL OF THE SAD. My god, this book. But I do want to say that I really, really like this line, both because of the permanence she assigns her memory of Warner and how she can use that to smile again.
She smiled and smiled, and when it all came out, she walked home and her brother never climbed into her sleep again. In many ways, she would miss him, but she could never miss his deadly eyes on the floor of the train or the sound of a cough that killed.
I know this is all pretty depressing, but I’m so happy that Liesel can find something good out of all this.
* * * THE LAST HUMAN STRANGER, PAGE 38 * * *
There were people everywhere on the city
street, but the stranger could not have
been more alone if it were empty.
As many times as I have spoken about loneliness here and on Mark Watches, this might actually be the one thing I’ve found that speaks to me so directly and perfectly that it almost creeps me out. Feeling lonely has nothing to do with who is physically around me. I’m alone because of how I feel inside, and I love that this is here, in this book, at this point of the story. At the end of chapter seventy-two, just after this quote, Liesel awakes to find Rosa quietly sitting with the accordion around her neck, reciting prayers.
“Make them come back alive,” she repeated. “Please, Lord, please. All of them.” Even the wrinkles around her eyes were joining hands.
The accordion must have ached her, but she remained.
Another portrait of loneliness in the house on 33 Himmel Street.