In the seventy-third to seventy-sixth chapters of The Book Thief, we finally learn how Hans cheats death, what happens to him because of this event, and how Liesel and Rudy witness something terrifying. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Book Thief.
I can’t believe I’m going to be done with this book, and very, very soon.
I certainly didn’t expect most of what’s happened here, from the tone, to the narrator, to the way the story has developed, to Markus Zusak’s style. It’s been a pleasant and satisfying experience and, thankfully, a complete departure from The Hunger Games. (That’s not a criticism. I am just glad this book is so different from the last one.)
And yet I am sad that this is coming to an end. This book has kept me on my toes and forced me to do things differently with my writing and the way I present it. I have enjoyed that.
All things must come to an end.
CH. 73: THE ACCIDENT
The name of this chapter just feels like a judgment in and of itself, a statement that confirms we will finally learn what it is that happened that allowed Hans Hubermann to cheat Death a second time. I also know that this is how Reinhold Zucker will die, so despite knowing that Hans survives, I was still anxious to see how this would unfold.
It was a surprisingly clear afternoon and the men were climbing into the truck. Hans Hubermann has just sat down in his appointed seat. Reinhold Zucker was standing above him.
“Move it,” he said.
“Bitte? Excuse me?”
Zucker was hunched beneath the vehicle’s ceiling. “I said move it, Arschloch.” The greasy jungle of his fringe fell in clumps onto his forehead. “I’m swapping seats with you.”
And now we know the full context of why Death insisted on telling us about Reinhold’s card playing, his bitter anger at Hans, because it led to this very moment: switching seats with Hans Hubermann.
Hans was quickly aware that the rest of the unit was already watching this pitiful struggle between two supposed grown men. He didn’t want to lose, but he didn’t want to be petty, either. Also, they’d just finished a tiring shift and he didn’t have the energy to go on with it. Bent-backed, he made his way forward to the vacant seat in the middle of the truck.
Sometimes the smallest details produce the most horrifyingly huge results. Hans has no idea what he just did. Eerie.
The olive green truck was on its way toward the camp, maybe ten miles away. Brunnenweg was telling a joke about a French waitress when the left front wheel was punctured and the driver lost control. The vehicle rolled many times and the men swore as they tumbled with the air, the light, the trash, and the tobacco. Outside, the blue sky changed from ceiling to floor as they clambered for something to hold.
Doesn’t this section almost feel like an official witness report or something? Zusak cycles through the details of the crash with a machine-like automation, and it’s yet another example of this matter-of-fact tone that makes things so much more creepier than they could have been.
When it stopped, they were all crowded onto the right-hand wall of the truck, their faces wedged against the filthy uniform next to them. Questions of health were pased around until one of the men, Eddie Alma, started shouting, “Get this bastard off me!” He said it three times, fast. He was staring into Reinhold Zucker’s blinkless eyes.
The fact that Eddie’s last name is “Alma,” which is Spanish for “soul,” is not lost on me, even if it’s unintentional. Death is coming to collect a soul, and it’s not Hans Hubermann’s. Again.
* * * THE DAMAGE, ESSEN * * *
Six men burned by cigarettes.
Two broken hands.
Several broken fingers.
A broken leg for Hans Hubermann.
A broken neck for Reinhold Zucker,
snapped almost in line with his earlobes.
That last part makes Hans’s line about the air going “straight through [his] ears” so eerily prophetic. This is not lost on the man who has now cheated Death twice through sheer luck.
Over by a tree, a thin strip of intense pain was still opening in Hans Hubermann’s leg. “It should have been me,” he said.
“What?” the sergeant called over from the truck.
“He was sitting in my seat.”
I’ve never come this close to death. (I think! I may have, but never knew I did.) I can’t imagine the sensation of knowing a decision I made just a few minutes earlier saved my life. I just got a chill running over my skin thinking about it.
No ambulance arrives for Reinhold, and the men climb into their replacement truck with the corpse of Reinhold Zucker, his mouth wide open still, and they place him on the floor.
A few times, some of them simply forgot and rested their feet on the body. Once they arrived, they all tried to avoid the task of pulling him out. When the job was done, Hans Hubermann took a few abbreviated steps before the pain fractured in his leg and brought him down.
So what does this all mean for Hans? I thought when I read this. A broken leg? Was the German army desperate enough to keep him on regardless? I honestly believed so, that we’d read about Hans put through more suffering despite his broken leg.
An hour later, when the doctor examined him, he was told it was definitely broken. The sergeant was on hand and stood with half a grin.
“Well, Hubermann. Looks like you’ve got away with it, doesn’t it?” He was shaking his round face, smoking, and he provided a list of what would happen next. “You’ll rest up. They’ll ask me what we should do with you. I’ll tell them you did a great job.” He blew some more smoke. “And I think I’ll tell them you’re not fit for the LSE anymore and you should be sent back to Munich to work in an office to do whatever cleaning up needs doing there. How does that sound?”
Unable to resist a laugh within the grimace of pain, Hans replied, “It sounds good, Sergeant.”
OH MY GOD YES!!!!!!!!! HANS IS COMING HOME!
Boris Schipper finished his cigarette. “Damn right it sounds good. You’re lucky I like you, Hubermann. You’re lucky you’re a good man, and generous with the cigarettes.”
While luck certainly played a part, I was struck by how disingenuous this statement might actually have been to Hans. Hans was lucky to be good; he was good. And maybe his path through The Book Thief is all about his goodness came to save his life. All of the choices he made to end up in the truck really weren’t luck at all. They were the result of his unending compassion and caring attitude.
Hell, luck really has nothing to do with it.
CH. 74: THE BITTER TASTE OF QUESTIONS
It’s a belated birthday present of sorts, but just over a week after she turns fourteen, the first truly detailed letter from Hans arrives. I like that it takes Hans to be sent home for his personality to return to his letters.
She ran inside from the mailbox and showed it to Mama. Rosa made her read it aloud, and they could not contain their excitement when Liesel read about his broken leg. She was stunned to the extent that she mouthed the next sentence only to herself.
“What is it?” Rosa pushed. “Saumensch?”
Liesel looked up from the letter and was close to shouting. The sergeant had been true to his word. “He’s coming home, Mama. Papa’s coming home!”
I just felt this wave of joy wash over me, despite this is the third time I’ve read this particular section. I never expected Hans to come home, period, and certainly not this early. AHHHHHHHHHH PLEASE LET NOTHING HAPPEN TO HIM ON THE WAY HOME.
A broken leg was certainly something to celebrate.
RIGHT. Never has a shattered bone brought me such joy.
I didn’t understand why such a joyous announcement would have such a negative chapter title, but that’s because I didn’t know that Rosa and Liesel took their joy to the Steiner house.
Rudy smiled and laughed, and Liesel could see that he was at least trying. However, she could also sense the bitter taste of questions in his mouth.
Why Hans Hubermann and not Alex Steiner?
He had a point.
Oh, poor Rudy. Ugh. Now I’m worried Alex won’t return home at all.
CH. 75: ONE TOOLBOX, ONE BLEEDER, ONE BEAR
Since his father’s recruitment to the army the previous October, Rudy’s anger had been growing nicely. The news of Hans Hubermann’s return was all he needed to take it a few steps further. He did not tell Liesel about it. There was no complaining that it wasn’t fair. His decision was to act.
He carried a metal case up Himmel Street at the typical thieving time of darkening afternoon.
That worry I held so many chapters ago just creeped back rapidly. Of the two of them, Rudy always seemed to be a bit more serious about his theft. Liesel always wanted books and not much else, and I felt she went along with Rudy on their earlier raids mostly because he was the one with her. But now, on his own, Rudy wants to steal and do so entirely by himself.
His thieving kit, an old red toolbox, is equipped with some legit tools to break into houses, though I was pretty confused as to why he’d bring a fresh pair of socks and a teddy bear. I mean, I love clean socks more than most things (not time travel), but where was he planning on going?
Content to leave Liesel out of this, Rudy doesn’t plan on Liesel witnessing him strolling down Himmel Street with a terrifying sense of purpose on his face. When she runs to catch up with him, he makes it clear that he is doing this for himself for once.
“You know something, Liesel, I was thinking. You’re not a thief at all,” and he didn’t even give her a chance to reply. “That woman lets you in. She even leaves you cookies, for Christ’s sake. I don’t call that stealing. Stealing is what the army does. Taking your father, and mine.” He kicked a stone and it clanged against a gate. He walked faster. “All those rich Nazis up there, on Grande Strasse, Gelb Strasse, Heide Strasse.”
Well, this is going to be a disaster, isn’t it? Rudy is headed straight to the richest residents of Molching and he’s going to steal from them, isn’t he? Every time something like this happens, I can’t help but think that one of these things are going to be the thing that leads to his death. Though, I suppose, like Hans, Rudy has always been living and acting towards his death, and it won’t all make sense until I arrive at that final moment.
“How does it feel, anyway?”
“How does what feel?”
“When you take one of those books?”
At that moment, she chose to keep still. If he wanted an answer, he’d have to come back, and he did. “Well?” But again, it was Rudy who answered, before Liesel could even open her mouth. “It feels good, doesn’t? To steal something back.”
As reckless as Rudy might be, I at least understand this desire and I get that this is what he needs to do to have some semblance of control in his life, especially since so much has been taken from him and his family.
As they kept walking, Rudy explained the toolbox at length, and what he would do with each item. For example, the hammers were for smashing windows and the towel was to wrap them up, to quell the sound.
“And the teddy bear?”
It belonged to Anna-Marie Steiner and was no bigger than one of Liesel’s books. The fur was shaggy and worn. The eyes and ears had been sewn back on repeatedly, but it was friendly looking nonetheless.
“That,” answered Rudy, “is the one masterstroke. That’s if a kid walks in while I’m inside. I’ll give it to them to calm them down.”
HAHAHAAHAHA RUDY. Oh my god, that is so ridiculous, but I love it. I mean, really, it’s not a good plan at all, but it’s somehow utterly brilliant.
It wasn’t until fifteen minutes later, when Liesel watched the sudden silence on his face, that she realized Rudy Steiner wasn’t stealing anything. The commitment had disappeared, and although he still watched the imagined glory of stealing, she could see that now he was not believing it. He was trying to believe it, and that’s never a good sign. His criminal greatness was unfurling before his eyes, and as the footsteps slowed and they watched the houses, Liesel’s relief was pure and sad inside her.
I like that Zusak contrasts those two emotions, Liesel’s relief and her sadness. She’s relieved that Rudy hasn’t gone through with his plan because she cares about his safety. But to watch his determination die so quickly is disheartening, and she can’t be happy about it.
“What am I waiting for?” he asked, but Liesel didn’t reply. Again, Rudy opened his mouth, but without any words.
Maybe the idea of stealing is better than the act in this case. Maybe Rudy is too full of fear and he doesn’t want to pursue that anymore. I can’t pretend to know anything about this. I’m just guessing at this point, but I also have to admit I’m a bit sad that Rudy doesn’t steal from the rich Nazis on Gelb Strasse, even though I was so worried early on.
* * * THE SPOKEN TRUTH * * *
OF RUDY STEINER
“I guess I’m better at leaving
things behind than stealing them.”
And perhaps that’s why he didn’t need to steal at that moment: he needed to leave behind his righteous anger behind instead of keeping it inside.
Surprisingly, the chapter takes a sharp turn to the night of March 9, 1943, the next air raid in Molching. As everyone heads out to go to their assigned air raid shelter, Michale Holtzapfel arrives at 33 Himmel Street to inform Rosa Hubermann that his mother is sitting at the kitchen table and refuses to move.
As the weeks had worn on, Frau Holtzapfel had not yet begun to recover. When Liesel came to read, the woman spent most of the time staring at the window. Her words were quiet, close to motionless. All brutality and reprimand were wrestled from her face. It was usually Michael who said goodbye to Liesel or gave her the coffee and thanked her. Now this.
I’m so amazed how Markus Zusak has brought the war to Himmel Street when there are so few moments where the war is physically ever there. The war has torn Frau Holtzapfel’s life apart. I sort of feel bad for Michael, since he survived, but heartbreak works in different ways for different people. For Frau Holtzapfel, she’s done. The war can physically arrive in Molching and it won’t make a difference to her. It’s already killed her. (That made me sad just typing it.)
I love that Rosa goes immediately to what she thinks is familiar for her neighbor, the one who used to spit on her door: She insults her. When that doesn’t work, both her and Michael are stumped, and Liesel takes the opportunity to run inside of the house, stopping when she spots Frau Holtzapfel sitting motionless at the kitchen table.
What exactly do you say to someone who has given up like this? Liesel hears her mother tell her to leave the woman alone.
“If she wants to die, that’s her business.”
But Liesel doesn’t leave:
* * * THE OPTIONS * * *
“Frau Holtzapfel, we have to go.”
“Frau Holtzapfel, we’ll die if we stay here.”
“You still have one son left.”
“Everyone’s waiting for you.”
“The bombs will blow your head off.”
“If you don’t come, I’ll stop coming to read
to you, and that means you’ve lost your only friend.”
She went with the last sentence, calling the words directly through the sirens. Her hands were planted on the table.
To say I was shocked is an understatement. I think Liesel is so much more perceptive than she gives herself credit for, and here, she recognizes that this is probably the only sentence she could speak to Frau Holtzapfel that would get her to move. It’s brutal, yes, but it just might work.
The woman looked up and made her decision. She didn’t move.
Liesel left. She withdrew herself from the table and rushed from the house.
Completely unexpected and so goddamn heart-wrenching. This always seems to work in movies and books: You say the right thing, even if it’s uncomfortable, and the other person snaps out of it.
But not Frau Holtzapfel. And that fills me with an unbelievable sadness.
As they run towards number forty-five, Michael hesitates a bit, but Frau Holtzapfel never materializes at the door. There’s no hope left. I believed that the bombs would fall on Molching and she would die, no doubt.
In the far corner of the shelter, Michael was cramped and shivery. “I should have stayed,” he said, “I should have stayed, I should have stayed …” His voice was close to noiseless, but his eyes were louder than ever.
Rosa is the one to assure him that this is not his fault, that he had to leave if that was his mother’s decision.
“Tell me something,” he said, “because I don’t understand ….” He fell back and sat against the wall. “Tell me, Rosa, how she can sit there ready to die while I still want to live.” The blood thickened. “Why do I want to live? I shouldn’t want to, but I do.”
Well, goddamn. This all seriously feels like the end of the book, even though I know there are fifty pages or so left, but the finality and the futility of this all is getting to me.
The young man wept uncontrollably with Rosa’s hand on his shoulder for many minutes. The rest of the people watched. He could not make himself stop even when the basement door opened and shut and Frau Holtzapfel entered the shelter.
Her son looked up.
Rosa stepped away.
Liesel, I love you so much. YOU ARE MY ABSOLUTE FAVORITE. I mean, it had to be her words, right? Oh god, this book is PLAYING WITH MY EMOTIONS.
Death injects himself a bit into the narrative and his words fill me with dread:
Far away, fires were burning and I had picked up just over two hundred murdered souls.
I was on my way to Molching for one more.
Oh, fucking hell. It’s going to be Rudy, isn’t it?
The chapter switches again to a new perspective, as one of the Steiner girls notices a trail of smoke out near the Amper River. Usually, Zusak focus on one person or event in a chapter, and here, this lengthy chapter constantly changes its focus, leading to me feeling urgent and disoriented. Rudy does not hesitate in this moment of awe and confusion, as he grips his red toolbox tighter and begins to spring towards the Amper River, with Liesel in tow.
Liesel could only see the toolbox in certain gaps in the trees as he made his way through to the dying glow and the misty plane. It say smoking in the clearing by the river. The pilot had tried to land there.
Is this it? I thought. Is this how Rudy dies? Or was the reference to one more soul meant for the pilot?
Death arrives and I believe it’s the first time he mentions seeing Rudy in person. I felt less like Rudy was Death’s target, but I wondered what was going to happen as he and Liesel moved closer to the crash.
Rudy circled slowly, from the tail and around to the right.
“There’s glass,” he said. “The windshield is everywhere.”
Then he saw the body.
I mean, it’s hard not to think of Stand By Me / The Body during this scene, but in The Book Thief, the story veers off in a completely different direction. Faced with a dying man before them, Rudy and Liesel are shocked into silence. However, Death interrupts to insist that Liesel recognized him. I’m still intrigued by the concept of Death in this book, so I assume that he doesn’t mean he has a physical form. Perhaps she is familiar with the feeling because Death came for Warner when she was on that train.
She did not back away or try to fight me, but I know that something told the girl I was there. Could she smell my breath? Could she hear my cursed circular heartbeat, revolving like the crime it is in my deathly chest? I don’t know, but she knew me and she looked me in my face and she did not look away.
Seriously, all I could think of during this is that this book would be impossible to make into a movie. How do you put a scene like into a film? We don’t even know if Death has a form, so how could you visually replicate this?
Rudy–brave, courageous Rudy–reaches into his toolbox, takes out the teddy bear he had planned to use for his thieving, and places it at his shoulder.
The dying man breathed it in. He spoke. In English, he said, “Thank you.” His straight-line cuts opened as he spoke, and a small drop of blood rolled crookedly down his throat.
“What?” Rudy asked him. “Was hast du gesagt? What did you say?”
Unfortunately, I beat him to the answer. The time was there and I was reaching into the cockpit. I slowly extracted the pilot’s soul from his ruffled uniform and rescued him from the broken plan. The crowd played with the silence as I made my way through. I jostled free.
As Death moves away from the scene, leaving Rudy and Liesel with a dead body, he further elaborates on his “circular heartbeat” that he’d mentioned earlier. Time is not a straight line for Death. It’s a circle.
…I have the endless ability to be in the right place at the right time.
Having just witnessed 200 examples of the worst of humanity, Death can’t help but comment that he’s also just seen the best of humanity in Rudy Steiner. That contrast will be with him forever.
CH. 76: HOMECOMING
We learn that in the beginning of April, Hans has healed enough to come home for a week before he has to head to Munich to work a desk job.
It was dark when he arrived home. It was a day later than expected, as the train was delayed due to an air-raid scare. He stood at the door of 33 Himmel Street and made a fist.
Four years earlier, Liesel Meminger was coaxed through that doorway when she showed up for the first time. Max Vandenburg had stood there with a key biting into his hand. Now it was Hans Hubermann’s turn. He knocked four times and the book thief answered.
What a beautiful, haunting parallel, a way to show how 33 Himmel Street has come to provide a place of shelter and love for so many people. Hans’s homecoming is not told with much fanfare, as Zusak rushes through it, but I don’t need to know the details. The details are not important. Hans Hubermann is finally home.
At 1 a.m., Liesel went to bed and Papa came in to sit with her, like he used to. She woke up several times to check that he was there, and he did not fail her.
The night was calm.
Her bed was warm and soft with contentment.
Again, I will take the joy when it comes, and I’m hogging it right now. Hans Hubermann is home.
Yes, it was a great night to be Liesel Meminger, and the calm, the warm, and the soft would remain for approximately three more months.
But her story lasts for six.
WHAT THE FUCK DOES THIS MEAN. Jesus christ, what happens in three months? WHAT HAPPENS AFTER SIX MONTHS.
OH GOD FOREVER UNPREPARED.