The Book Thief

by: Markus Zusak

Liesel Meminger

The impoverished always try to keep moving, as if relocating might help. They ignore the reality that a new version of the same old problem will be waiting at the end of the trip—the relative you cringe to kiss. I think her mother knew this quite well. She wasn’t delivering her children to the higher echelons of Munich, but a foster home had apparently been found, and if nothing else, the new family could at least feed the girl and the boy a little better, and educate them properly.

Death the narrator explains why Liesel’s mother takes her to a foster home. Liesel’s brother has died and the mother realizes that in her poverty she cannot care for her daughter. Liesel has always lived in poverty and with the loss of her brother and now her mother, she stands to lose the only home she’s known. As Death approvingly observes, at least her mother tries to give her a slightly better life. This understanding may be one thing that helps Liesel accept the new conditions she finds herself in.

She stood up and took the book from him, and as he smiled over her shoulder at some other kids, she threw it away and kicked him as hard as she could in the vicinity of the groin. Well, as you might imagine, Ludwig Schmeikl certainly buckled, and on the way down, he was punched in the ear. When he landed, he was set upon. When he was set upon, he was slapped and clawed and obliterated by a girl who was utterly consumed with rage.

Death describes the scene after Liesel publicly fails a reading test and her classmates tease her. When one boy comes back for a second attempt to get a rise out of her, he more than succeeds. Liesel’s humiliation over her inability to read, which she identifies as a profound weakness on her part, makes her particularly furious. In her rage, however, Liesel also reveals her toughness.

What came to her then was the dustiness of the floor, the feeling that her clothes were more next to her than on her, and the sudden realization that this would all be for nothing—that her mother would never write back and she would never see her again. The reality of this gave her a second Watschen. It stung her, and it did not stop for many minutes.

Death describes the moment Liesel realizes her mother will not be coming back and compares it to a parental slap in the face. After Liesel took money to send her mother letters, Rosa beat her. However, the true misery, like a second beating, comes when Liesel comprehends that her mother is in fact gone forever. She understands this truth at the very moment that she explains that she stole household money to mail letters to the mother who gave her up. The confession forces her to stand outside her illusions and objectively accept the finality of the separation.

Sometimes, when Liesel was reading with Papa close to three o’clock, they would both hear the waking moment of Max…. [O]n one occasion, stirred by the sound of Max’s anxiety, Liesel decided to get out of bed. From listening to his history, she had a good idea of what he saw in those dreams…. It would be nice to say that after this small breakthrough, neither Liesel not Max dreamed their bad visions again. It would be nice but untrue.

Death recounts how Liesel comes to realizes that, like herself, Max has nightmares. She decides to ask him about them. Of all people, she knows how much pain nightmares cause and the benefit of having someone there with a sympathetic ear, as Hans does for her. But she also knows that neither of those things in themselves make the nightmares go away, and Death confirms that the dreams continue. She may have achieved her goal to make Max’s burden a little easier to bear.

Liesel shied away. “No,” she said, “thank you. I have enough books at home. Maybe another time. I’m rereading something else with my papa. You know, the one I stole from the fire that night.” The mayor’s wife nodded. If there was one thing about Liesel Meminger, her thieving was not gratuitous. She only stole books on what she felt was a need-to-have basis.

Death watches as Liesel reacts to the generosity of Ilsa Hermann. Though thrilled to have access to Ilsa Hermann’s large library, she refuses the offer to take a book home. Liesel understands books’ importance and she does not take them for granted. She reads and rereads each one that she has. And for now, she doesn’t feel entitled to the Hermanns’ books. However, her respect for their property will change when she feels that the Hermanns have wronged her family.

“It was my fault,” Liesel answered. “Completely. I insulted the mayor’s wife and told her to stop crying over her dead son. I called her pathetic. That was when they fired you. Here.” She walked to the wooden spoons, grabbed a handful, and placed them in front of her. “Take your pick.”

Liesel explains to Rosa why Frau Hermann fired her. Readers know that Liesel insults Frau Hermann after learning of the firing, however. Yet Liesel, wanting to protect Rosa from feeling bad, tells Rosa that the firing was her own fault and prepares to take the punishment. Liesel also feels guilty about her treatment of Frau Hermann and wants Rosa to punish her for her cruel words. Ironically, Rosa does not believe Liesel and refuses to punish her.

She didn’t care about the food. Rudy, no matter how hard she tried to resist the idea, was secondary to her plan. It was the book she wanted. The Whistler. She wouldn’t tolerate having it given to her by a lonely, pathetic old woman. Stealing it on the other hand, seemed a little more acceptable. Stealing it, in a sick kind of sense, was like earning it.

Death explains why Liesel steals Frau Hermann’s book. At first, Liesel refuses the book offered by Frau Hermann because accepting felt wrong. After Frau Hermann fires Rosa, Liesel’s opinion changes. She believes the town’s wealthy should continue to employ workers during the war. Economizing at home makes poor workers like Rosa even poorer. Liesel justifies stealing the book with the reasoning that the Hermanns have more than enough and they deserve a bit of punishment.

The best world shakers were the ones who understood the true power of words. They were the ones who could climb the highest. One such word shaker was a small, skinny girl. She was renowned as the best word shaker of her region because she knew how powerless a person could be WITHOUT words. That’s why she could climb higher than anyone else. She had desire. She was hungry for them.

Max writes these words in a fable called “The Word Shaker.” The word shaker described here is clearly Liesel. Max recognizes that because Liesel had to fight to gain her power over words—only learning to read at age ten—she understands their importance better than most people, which in turn gives her more power. In the fable, Liesel’s power over words parallels the Führer’s, but she uses hers for the opposite purpose.

“‘Hair the color of lemons,’” Rudy read. His fingers touched the words. “You told him about me?” At first, Liesel could not talk. Perhaps it was the sudden bumpiness of love she felt for him. Or had she always loved him? It’s likely. Restricted as she was from speaking, she wanted him to kiss her. She wanted him to drag her hand across and pull her over. It didn’t matter where. Her mouth, her neck, her check. Her skin was empty for it, waiting.

Reading the stories Max wrote for Liesel, Rudy expresses his surprise and joy to see that Max knew about him. Realizing that she shared stories about Rudy with Max may be what makes Liesel realize she loves Rudy. But from his own deepening love for her, Rudy stopped flippantly asking her for a kiss like he did when they were children. Now that they both have achieved the maturity to kiss meaningfully, they won’t.

In the night, when Mama and Papa were asleep, Liesel crept down to the basement and turned on the kerosene lamp. For the first hour, she only watched the pencil and paper. She made herself remember, and as was her habit, she did not look away. “Schreibe,” she instructed herself. “Write.” After more than two hours, Liesel Meminger started writing, not knowing how she was ever going to get this right.

Death tells how Liesel decides to take Frau Hermann’s advice and try to write her own story. First, she must recall and confront many painful events, but she has learned to do so. While Liesel understands reading and the power of words, she has yet to write. Even though she feels unsure of herself, she transforms into a writer through the act of writing.