In the seventy-ninth and eightieth chapters of The Book Thief, the war moves closer to Molching. As it does, Liesel experiences a reunion that gives her the courage to do something incredibly foolish and beautiful. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Book Thief.
I really don’t know where to go from here in terms of how I should feel about this book. I don’t mean that in the sense of the quality or my enjoyment of it. That’s not going to change for me. I know that my final review will be a glowing recommendation at this point, unless there’s some terrible reveal that re-contextualizes this novel as something that ruins it all. But knowing the awful, horrific ending to the entire lot of characters, aside from Max and Liesel, sullies what I read here. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing yet, but it sure is quite distracting. I just want to be the Doctor and interrupt their time streams and change everything. That’s not possible.
In a way, Death was right. While the moment was horrible, I now feel like the blow was much less intense than it could have been, had the bombing of Molching sat at the very end of The Book Thief.
Still….I can’t help but feel immeasurably sad about all of this. And it’s only going to get worse.
CH. 79: THE WAR MAKER
The war is not going well for the Germans, and that means it’s not going well for those that live in Molching.
* * * JULY 27, 1943 * * *
Michael Holtzapfel was buried and the book thief
read to the bereaved. The Allies bombed Hamburg–
and on that subject, it’s lucky I’m somewhat
miraculous. No one else could carry close to
forty-five thousand people in such a short amount
of time. Not in a million humans years.
As I said before, Markus Zusak has done something wonderful here with his ability to humanize what this war is for the residents of Molching. He also doesn’t ignore the horror that still looms over all of this: what has happened to the Jews.
While most of the camps were spread throughout Europe, there were some still in existence in Germany itself.
In those camps, many people were still made to work, and walk.
Max Vandenburg was one such Jew.
Oh my god, Max. Max is going to march through Molching? But I thought he wasn’t going to return until August? I AM CONFUSED.
CH. 80: WAY OF THE WORDS
Jews were being marched through the outskirts of Munich, and one teenage girl somehow did the unthinkable and made her way through to walk with them. When the soldiers pulled her away and threw her to the ground, she stood up again. She continued.
Oh jesus christ, what the hell are you talking about? Is this Max and Liesel? Oh, I just had a thought. I am going to save it for a second.
Liesel resumes the same routine when the Jews are marched through Molching: She runs to the street to see if she can spot Max Vandenburg, to have any sort of confirmation that he’s alive. We as the readers know he is, and that’s why chapter eighty is so spectacular: We know what happens and yet it’s all still just as exciting and emotional as it could be had it all been an unexplained surprise.
The parade of Jews doesn’t feel any less disturbing despite that this is not the first time it’s happened. I feel that Liesel knows, deep down, that there is almost no chance that Max Vandenburg will be marched through town. But Liesel represents a beacon of hope in The Book Thief. Even if her hope is foolish and pointless and involves no real benefit to her, she still hopes. As someone who fights my own cynicism with a brutish force, I feel drawn to this hopeful light again and again. If Liesel can feel hope, I can as well.
Liesel searched them and it was not so much a recognition of facial features that gave Max Vandenburg away. It was how the face was acting–also studying the crowd. Fixed in concentration. Liesel felt herself pausing as she found the only face looking directly into the German spectators. It examined them with such purpose that people on either side of the book thief noticed and pointed him out.
“What’s he looking at?” said a male voice at her side.
It’s happening. It’s really happening.
The book thief stepped onto the road.
Never had movement been such a burden. Never had a heart been so definite and big in her adolescent chest.
She stepped forward and said, very quietly, “He’s looking for me.”
And that’s when my heart started silently weeping. I have been waiting for Max’s return to Liesel’s life for a long time. I wish he never left 33 Himmel Street, but it’s the way things are, and the difficulty of dealing with it does not mean it’s something Zusak shouldn’t have written. This is all a necessary part of the journey.
Liesel shrugged away entirely from the crowd and entered the tide of Jews, weaving through them till she grabbed hold of his arm with her left hand.
His face fell on her.
It reached down as she tripped, and the Jew, the nasty Jew, helped her up. It took all of his strength.
“I’m here, Max,” she said again. “I’m here.”
As my eyes welled up reading this, I began to fear that, being so close to the book, this was not going to end well. While Death has said that Max and Liesel are alive after the bombing, I’m starting to get the sense that he is one awfully undependable narrator. I’d have to re-read this again, but I almost feel like he’s outright lied to me at times. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book like this, where the narrator is a character in and of itself like this. I tried to explain this book to a friend this past weekend, and I said it was if Death was sitting next to you at a campfire, telling you Liesel’s story, constantly interrupting himself to tell you these inane and adorable and unsettling tangents and spoiling his own story as well.
Yeah. It’s a bit like that. And I don’t necessarily trust death all that much right now.
Still, it doesn’t ruin the moment in the slightest, despite that I’m basically ruining it right now. These are not thoughts I had during my first run through of chapter eighty. At the time, I was transfixed, both in love with the courageous beauty that Liesel was demonstrating and by the DUMPTRUCK OF FEAR that was barreling down on me.
No soldier had seen her yet, and Max gave her a warning. “You have to let go of me, Liesel.” He even tried to push her away, but the girl was too strong. Max’s starving arm could not sway her, and she walked on, between the filth, the hunger, and the confusion.
Ugh, I can just imagine this in my head, Max so desperate to save Liesel from the inevitable harm coming her way, but absolutely unable to do so. I meanâ€¦how do you review something like this? How do you talk about it in any sort of way that doesn’t trivialize it and dissect it in some irritatingly pedantic way? How do you add any bit of commentary to this procession of hope that doesn’t sully the process? Certain things need not be described, and certain things speak on their own. This scene? It definitely feels like one of them.
When a soldier finally notices Liesel in the crowd of Jews, he comes to forcibly take her away, and Liesel notes that she has “seen him afraid, but never like this.” After all Max has been through, if this is what causes him to show this form of fear, then I know that shit is real. As Death told us, this fourteen-year-old girl, thrown down by a German soldier for showing affection to a Jew, gets right back up to join the same man again. Amazing.
Liesel really does personify hope in so many ways, and the fact that this young woman, really, can look in the face of such a morbid, terrifying face of human depravity and essentially give it the finger like she does here show us that she actually believes in the hope that she possesses. It’s not a gimmick, it’s not a thing she clings to without passion, and it is certainly not a theory for her. It’s real and it is her experience.
She takes this moment and decides to return the gift that Max gave to her so long ago, The Word Shaker. She does so by giving him back the very words he placed on the pages of that sketchbook.
“Max,” she said. He turned and briefly closed his eyes as the girl continued. “‘There was once a strange, small man,'” she said. Her arms were loose but her hands were fists at her side. “But there was a word shaker, too.”
YEAH, SO THIS WAS THE MOMENT THE TEARS JUST FILLED MY EYES. It is so indicative of another huge theme of the novel, spelled out in the chapter title. Words have power, and those powers can be used to harm or to save. Liesel is showing Max that she knows his words saved her. As she stands “resolute” on the street, handing over the words to Max, he stops in the street as well.
Max Vandenburg remained standing.
He did not drop to his knees.
People and Jews and clouds all stopped. They watched.
That’s really sort of what this all feels like. It feels like time has stopped. This is the moment that matters to the whole book and this pause is so necessary.
As he stood, Max looked first at the girl and then stared directly into the sky who was wide and blue and magnificent. There were heavy beams–planks of sun–falling randomly, wonderfully to the road. Clouds arched their backs to look behind as they started again to move on. “It’s such a beautiful day,” he said, and his voice was in many pieces. A great day to die. A great day to die, like this.
Wait. WAIT. Oh no, I thought. To die? Is Max going to do something in order to die??? I quickly realized that I was overreacting, that Max was merely stating that this moment was so beautiful and perfect that die would only cement its perfection forever. The soldiers arrive, and he is whipped as Liesel is pulled away. In those seconds, Liesel recalls all of the moments between the two of them: his stories of Stuttgart. The snowmen. The clouds. The basement.
Max hit the ground and the soldier now turned to the girl. His mouth opened. He had immaculate teeth.
A sudden flash came before her eyes. She recalled the day she’d wanted Ilsa Hermann or at least the reliable Rosa to slap her, but neither of them would do it. On this occasion, she was not let down.
The whip sliced her collarbone and reached across her shoulder blade.
I don’t know if the flash comes from guilt. That’s where the thought originated. She initially felt guilt for the way she’d yelled at the mayor’s wife, but this has no undertones of guilt to me. It feels like pride, the kind that’s earned and deserved and displayed because you no longer fear the thing that has controlled you. Liesel does not fear the soldiers or Germany or the Nazis or pain or the public scorn that she’s sure to get. She knows this is right, and she’s going to continue standing in that street. The whips rain down on her, and she ignores Rudy Steiner’s cries to leave. Finally, the blows push her to the ground as the soldier then orders Max up.
His legs staggered and his hands wiped at the marks of the whip, to soothe the stinging. When he tried to look again for Liesel, the soldier’s hands were placed upon his bloodied shoulders and pushed.
This pocket of eternity ends just as quickly as it began, and I felt like I’d been snapped out of this reality and back into the world where Liesel’s actions are not solely beautiful. They are dangerous. Rudy recognizes this and calls out to Tommy MÃ¼ller to help him out in picking up Liesel. Liesel has an idea of her own as she sees Max walking in the distance, blurred legs at the end of the the line of Jews.
She stood, one last time.
Waywardly, she began to walk and then run down Munich Street, to haul in the last steps of Max Vandenburg.
I LOVE YOU SO MUCH, LIESEL. My god, you give me hope.
After perhaps thirty meters, just as a soldier turned around, the girl was felled. Hands were clamped upon her from behind and the boy next door brought her down. He forced her knees to the road and suffered penalty. He collected her punches as if they were presents. Her bony hands and elbows were accepted with nothing but a few short moans. He accumulated the loud, clumsy specks of saliva and tears as if they were lovely to his face, and more important, he was able to hold her down.
I know that it’s a sad moment that Liesel does not get to see Max any longer, but Rudy probably did the right thing, saving her life by holding her down. Still, it’s a remarkably difficult moment to read because no one can possibly be happy during this at all.
On Munich Street, a boy and girl were entwined.
They were twisted and comfortless on the road.
Together, they watched the humans disappear. They watched them dissolve, like moving tablets in the humid air.
I just feel so sad and dejected again, suddenly remembering how much death and destruction this book holds. It’s also weird that there’sâ€¦.more? I know the “ending” for the most part, so this experience is completely bizarre to me.
Oh, Rudy. You were such a fantastic friend to Liesel. Why did you have to die?