In the epilogue of The Book Thief, the story finally comes full circle as we learn the destiny of Liesel Meminger. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to finish The Book Thief.
We’ve finally made it to the end. But none of this really ends, does it?
CH. 85: DEATH AND LIESEL
It has been many years since all of that, but there is still plenty of work to do. I can promise you that the world is a factory. The sun stirs it, the humans rule it. And I remain. I carry them away.
In just a few sentences, Zusak is able to communicate how this is but one tiny chapter in a long existence of death, that despite how meaningful and important it is, it is but one thing. Death will keep moving and collecting. We will keep dying for him.
We’ve reached the moment when Death has told us everything there is to know about The Book Thief, giving us the context of the day after Liesel stopped writing it. There’s nothing left to tell. The story is complete.
Liesel Meminger lived to a very old age, far away from Molching and the demise of Himmel Street.
She died in a suburb of Sydney. The house number was forty-five–the same as the Fielders’ shelter–and the sky was the best blue of afternoon. Like her papa, her soul was sitting up.
We’re now given the most direct (and perhaps only) reference and reminder that so much of what just happened throughout The Book Thief was real. Molching may have been imagined, and so may have many of the people, but the horrors of Nazi Germany were real. This is Markus Zusak’s way of saying that Liesel represents what his grandmother went through in World War II, and since this book has scenes based on the stories she told him, this feels like his way of thanking her. Even that context aside, I can’t imagine that after what happened to her, Liesel would want to stay in Germany anymore.
In her final visions, she saw her three children, her grandchildren, her husband, and the long list of lives that merged with hers. Among them, lit like lanterns, were Hans and Rosa Hubermann, her brother, and the boy whose hair remained the color of lemons forever.
Liesel, that young girl so full of words, grew up and moved away, had a family, and had a life outside the basement of 33 Himmel Street. It’s both heartbreaking and redemptive and my heart aches from thinking of either emotion.
CH. 86: WOOD IN THE AFTERNOON
There are, I must admit, two small details that, had they not been addressed, would have irked me a bit, if only because my more curious side would have always wondered about them.
My first question: Where do you go and what do you do when you’ve found that your life has been bombed to pieces?
After the bombing, Liesel is taken to the police station, where the inevitable occurs:
It took three hours in the police station for the mayor and a fluffy-haired woman to show their faces. “Everyone says there’s a girl,” the lady said, “who survived on Himmel Street.”
A policeman pointed.
And I used the word “inevitable” because there was too much that had transpired between Ilsa Hermann and Liesel for this not to be what ends up happening to her. By the end of The Book Thief, I believe that Liesel had finally grown to trust the woman in that library, that she’d done enough to keep up that wall around herself. Still, this is a tender, traumatic moment for Liesel, so, while she doesn’t react the same way she did all those years ago when she was first dropped off at 33 Himmel Street, she is reticent to open up again.
The girl left her hold her hand on top of the accordion case, which sat between them.
It’s a small consolation, a gesture that she does appreciate what Frau Hermann is doing, but it’s all that she will allow.
An even further sign of her growth and yet still evidence of her sorrow, Liesel doesn’t close herself off stubbornly in the mayor’s house, instead choosing to constantly speak, even just to herself.
For four days, she carried around the remains of Himmel Street on the carpets and floorboards of 8 Grande Strasse. She slept a lot and didn’t dream, and on most occasions she was sorry to wake up. Everything disappeared when she was asleep.
Content to still refuse to shower, Liesel even attends the funerals of her family and friends wearing a dress and the dirt of the street where she lived in Molching. I believe that Liesel refused to take a shower because then she’d have to leave behind the physical evidence that Himmel Street was a place at one time, a place full of Max and her papa and mama and Rudy and the Steiners and that the filth that they all loved and cherished. She can’t fathom washing that away:
There was also a rumor that later in the day, she walked fully clothed into the Amper River and said something very strange.
Something about a kiss.
Something about a Saumensch.
How many times did she have to say goodbye?
This is all a reminder of the totality of those bombs, that they wiped away everything in Liesel’s life: her family, her friends, her home, that basement, everything. She realizes that even the books that kept her alive are gone:
One morning, in a renewed state of shock, she even walked back down to Himmel Street to find them, but nothing was left. There was no recovery from what happened. That would take decades; it would take a long life.
And it would take moving to Sydney, Australia, thousands of miles away from that wretched place, destroyed by the rib-cage planes.
There were two ceremonies for the Steiner family. The first was immediately upon their burial. The second was as soon as Alex Steiner made it home, when he was given leave after the bombing.
OH MY GOD. I had completely forgotton that Alex Steiner had survived, that he was the last Steiner. That horrific prophetic statement Death made so long ago now makes complete sense: By “saving” Rudy from that school, he’d unfortunately set him on the path to his death. Crucified Christ, how could he have ever known?
That day, on the steps, Alex Steiner was sawn apart.
Liesel told him that she had kissed Rudy’s lips. It embarrassed her, but she thought he might have liked to know. There were wooden teardrops and an oaky smile. In Liesel’s vision, the sky I saw was gray and glossy. A silver afternoon.
Silver, the color of Hans Hubermann’s eyes. Her final visions are all clouded with the thoughts of Hans Hubermann.
Hold me now, please.
CH. 87: MAX
What?!?! OH GOD, more Max???
Not yet. Death tells us that Alex reopens his tailor shop, despite that it brings him no money, and I imagine it’s just to keep himself busy to avoid the horrors of knowing his family died without him. Liesel joins him. I don’t know why, exactly, but I find comfort in the thought of Liesel surviving with Ilsa Hermann and Alex Steiner. Comfort in numbers.
Finally, in October 1945, a man with swampy eyes, feathers of hair, and a clean-shaven face walked into the shop. He approached the counter. “Is there someone here by the name of Liesel Meminger?”
“Yeah, she’s in the back,” said Alex. He was hopeful, but he wanted to be sure. “May I ask who is calling on her?”
;KAFLSDJ;LSAKDJF A;SDLKFJAS D;FKLAJSDFA;LK HE MADE IT!!!!!
Liesel came out.
They hugged and cried and fell to the floor.
Oh god, Max survived. MAX SURVIVED! Oh god, I don’t even feel the need to know anything else more than this, and I’m kind of glad that Zusak doesn’t elaborate. He survived. He found Liesel. Something went right. That’s what we need to know.
CH. 88: THE HANDOVER MAN
As we reach the final chapter of The Book Thief, I was overwhelmed by the sadness of it all, that this journey had ended so tragically, yet I was so completely satisfied by it all. There’s so much that Zusak has hinted here about the story and about our narrator that I’ll have to come to terms with, since I know they are just bits and pieces that will go unanswered. That’s ok. It’s a complete ending, one that leaves things untied and unresolved, but that’s what this war did to Liesel Meminger. It’s the reality of it all.
The last final shock of this all is the revelation that Death takes a moment to speak with Liesel’s soul after he takes her in that Sydney suburb:
When I traveled to Sydney and took Liesel away, I was finally able to do something I’d been waiting on for a long time. I put her down and we walked along Anzac avenue, near the soccer field, and I pulled a dusty black book from my pocket.
The old woman was astonished. She took it in her hand and said, “Is this really it?”
I love that at the end of this, Liesel gets her book back. On top of that, she’s going to learn precisely how important it was and not just to herself. She asks Death one simple question: “Could you understand it?”
This was not a question of comprehension, but one of purpose: Could Death understand what Liesel was trying to say in The Book Thief?
I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race–that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.
But she knows this. We know this. While The Book Thief is a novel about guilt and violence, and the inherent power of words (whichever direction that power is moved), there’s a stark contrast that hangs over it all:
Humans can be evil, destructive beings. Humans can be loving, redemptive souls. And sometimes they can be both or neither.
All I was able to do was turn to Liesel Meminger and tell her the only truth I truly know. I said it to the book thief and I say it now to you.
* * * A LAST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR * * *
I am haunted by humans.
A painful, unsettling reminder of the presence our narrator has in this novel. He sees all of it, and he sees the end of it.
And we haunt him.
I am truly of the perspective that when people come up to me, either in person or online, and ask me what books they should read, I’ll cycle through the same familiar titles: The Stranger. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Crime and Punishment. Heart of Darkness. The Great Gatsby. Mercy Among The Children.
And I think that The Book Thief is going to constantly be on the tip of my tongue, maybe slipped in between Dostoevsky and Conrad, maybe right off the bat if I think the person will particularly enjoy it. I enjoyed this book, almost right from the start, and there’s not a book I’ve ever read that is quite like it. I don’t want to wax poetically about the themes addressed at large, only because I feel like I’ve already discussed them to death over the past two months or so.
But I wanted to thank the few thousand of you who have been reading along with me. I knew that after I came off The Hunger Games series, I’d be taking a blow in terms of how active things were around here, but after so many of you feverishly recommended this book to me, I figured it was worth the chance to do a one-off that was completely different from anything I’d ever done.
I wanted to thank you and tell you that it was worth it. God, what a fantastic novel.
So! This week, I’ll be taking time off for a bit to work on creating e-book versions of my Twilight, Harry Potter, and Hunger Games reviews to start, hopefully having a store/download section within two weeks. I think I’ll be able to throw up a couple Harry Potter re-reads this week, but if not, never fear! Next week, I will be devoting my time solely to re-reading The Sorcerer’s Stone and continuing on with a few Infinite Jest posts as well, since they have been sadly neglected.
On Monday, May 23, I will begin the His Dark Materials trilogy, starting with Northern Lights / The Golden Compass. Yes, THIS IS DEFINITELY VERY QUITE EXCITING AND SUCH. Spread the word!
Again, thank you for indulging me on this brief journey. I hope you enjoyed it, too!