I first read this book when I was about 14, I think. Well, in my memory I read it when I was 17, but since my bookshelf is arranged by the date I read my books, and I retrieved this book from the group of books I read when I was a freshman in high school, I’m going to trust my shelf instead. That, and the fact that as I was reading it I realized I’d forgotten a lot about it. But before we start- SPOILER WARNING! Really, if you haven’t read the book and think you might want to, you need to stop here. My rant that comes next probably won’t make a lot of sense anyway.
It’s about a young German girl, Liesel Meminger, who is taken to live with new foster parents, Rosa and Hans Hubermann, at the beginning of World War II. Her brother dies, they house a hidden Jew, she steals books, and she doesn’t kiss her best friend until he’s dead. And the story is told from Death’s point of view.
It’s a unique book, and definitely one of my favorite WWII era pieces of fiction. It’s sad, and harsh, but so, so heartwarming. Why? Zusak’s characters. Honestly, the way to my heart is always through the characters. (Though the plot was great, too).
As I usually find with war stories, especially World War stories, the heart of the book simply has to come through the characters. Why else ever read a war story? I think that’s why I always found my timeliney, fact listing textbooks so boring throughout school, and why I love war literature (whether they be true stories or fictional, of course). Characters who rip my heart out make any book worth reading.
We’ll start with Liesel. She was gentle and smart, with a good heart and a tough spirit. And with her, it’s hard not to talk about Hans Hubermann, her foster father, or simply her “papa.” Even though it had been years since I’d read the book, my memory so rusty I had forgotten the Jew, Max, one of the most important characters in the book, I could clearly remember Hans. Hans, simply, is good. He has a good, solid heart, and that, I believe, is what makes the biggest impression on Liesel’s character. They are two kindred spirits, and after Liesel arrives on Himmel Street to live with them, unable to sleep because of terrible dreams about her dead brother, he shows up in her room every night to help her back to sleep, which eventually turns into them reading together. Thus, this is how Liesel learns to read.
Their relationship is one of the warmest, tenderest I’ve read in any book, and it’s definitely their goodness that this story is told around, and because of. There is so much to say about Hans. Hans was the best, the quiet hero, the one who’s good heart bled into the hearts of every other character he came into contact with, first or secondhand.
Rosa- Liesel’s foster mother. Where Liesel and Hans capture you right away, Rosa really earns your love, and when she does, she has it. She’s a tough woman, small and round and constantly yelling insults. It makes you wonder why Hans married her in the first place. But, as Death says, she had one of the “softest souls” he carried away, and as the book progresses you learn so much of how that’s true. She’s incredibly loyal, and she loves as fiercely as she berates. A part at the end of the book that had me in tears:
[Liesel] took Mama’s hand and touched her wrist. “Mama, I know that you…I liked when you came to school and told me Max had woken up. Did you know I saw you with Papa’s accordion?” She tightened her grip on her hand. “I came and watched and you were beautiful. Goddamnit, you were so beautiful, Mama.”
And of course, Max, the hidden Jew. Lovely, gentle Max, the fist fighter, who would imagine battling Hitler in the Hubermann’s basement, and who wrote books for Liesel. I think what I loved so much about his character was that contrast, a physical fighter who had to turn into a different kind of fighter entirely- one who fought with words instead of fists, because it was the only thing he had left. Something that he learned from Liesel.
My favorite scene of Max’s was when Liesel spotted him in the procession of Jews marching through her streets on their way to the concentration camp, after he’d been forced to leave the Hubermann’s. Liesel’s desperation was raw and painful, and I particularly loved this passage of her chase and struggle after Max had been herded away and she was held back by her best friend, Rudy:
“Please, Max!” [….] Hands were clamped upon her from behind and the boy next door brought her down. He forced her knees to the road and suffered the 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.
Rudy 😦 RUDY!! My favorite character of all. I think this is because he starts out as a little punk kid with good intentions, always running and stealing and trying to get Liesel to kiss him, and throughout the story his heart only deepens and softens. He and Liesel are the most loyal of best friends, and when any best friend is loyal and good to my protagonist, I feel as if they’re loyal and good to me. And the passage above so truly shows his love for her (“saliva and tears as if they were lovely to his face” WOW).
One of my favorite scenes in the book is when he gives the teddy bear to the dying pilot, the one object from the toolbox he had packed in preparation for an act of theft he’d planned to do out of anger at the war, at his father being sent out in it in his place, and at Hitler himself. Instead, Rudy gives a teddy bear to an enemy pilot who was bombing his country (he’d only packed it in case he was caught by a child, to calm them down, if they discovered him stealing). Instead of stealing food he tries giving them to the procession of Jews. Another one of my favorite little excerpts about Rudy that I think sums him up:
Years ago, when they’d raced on a muddy field, Rudy was a hastily assembled set of bones, with a jagged, rocky smile. In the trees this afternoon, he was a giver of bread and teddy bears. He was a triple Hitler Youth athletics champion. He was her best friend.
I think, also, Rudy is the character that makes me saddest at all (for my tears began as soon as Death reached him).
I saw him hip-deep in some icy water, chasing a book, and I saw a boy lying in bed, imagining how a kiss would taste from his glorious next-door neighbor. He does something to me, that boy. Every time. It’s his only detriment. He steps on my heart. He makes me cry.
Same, Death. I cried very much as I read his death, and it only set me off for everyone else. Even though my memory of this book had been foggy, I knew Rudy had been my favorite, and here I am again, heart broken all over again for the “boy whose hair remained the color of lemons forever.”
The story itself was beautiful, not particularly twisty, but an important chain of events, spurred by goodness and evil and the blurred lines between it all. I loved the non-linear telling of events, where Death would reveal the ending, or things that took place later in the story, earlier on in the book. For most of the book, we know that Rudy dies. But how? When? Why do I still have the hope that he won’t die, even though I know he will?
Also, the theme on importance of words. How Liesel hates them and resents them and needs them and loves them at the same time. A true, true theme from a writer, as Zusak certainly proves he is.
…She had seen a Jewish man who had twice given her the most beautiful pages of her life marched to a concentration camp. And at the center of it all, she saw the Fuhrer shouting his words and passing them around.
Those images were the world, and it stewed in her as she eyed the lovely books and their manicured titles. It brewed in her as she eyed the pages full to the brims of their bellies with paragraphs and words.
You bastards, she thought.
You lovely bastards.
Don’t make me happy. Please, don’t fill me up and let me think that something good can come of any of this. […] I don’t want to hope for anything anymore.
WHAT A PASSAGE. Especially that last small paragraph. The crux of the book. This, I think, is what it truly comes down to with war stories (and any story, really). They give us hope, and even the best of times, or the worst of times, that hope can be so poisonous. This is why there are so many books written on war, that so much art and expression comes out of it. Death observes that humans are so resiliently, helplessly hopeful, so much so that sometimes they crave not to be.
And of course, there was the character of Death, an amazingly intricate character. Heart-breakingly humane, though I would only assume that was Zusak’s point. I would quote the last line of the book here, but it simply wouldn’t be quite so climactic and sad without context, just slapped on my blog without the rest of the book before it.
I could go on. There’s so much more to say. Liesel’s relationship with the mayor’s wife. Max’s stories. The little passages interjected by death between chapters and passages. The beautiful writing. But, it’s getting late.
So, go read it if you haven’t. Of course, you’re pretty spoiled for most of it if you’ve reached this point, but still, it’s entirely worth it.
And one more line I loved, the last line in Liesel’s own book:
I have hated the words and
I have loved them,
and I hope I have made them right.