Once, words had rendered Liesel useless, but now… she felt an innate sense of power. It happened every time she deciphered a new word or pieced together a sentence. She was a girl. In Nazi Germany. How fitting that she was discovering the power of words.
Having not yet learned to read and write at nearly ten years old, Liesel knew enough to realize that words had a power which she did not have access to. Now as she finally learns to read, the narrator explains how she gains access to that power. Because this learning comes late and feels like a struggle, the power of words seems more obvious to her than to children who learn to read early. As she and others in the story come to recognize, Hitler exercises dominion over Germany by the power of words, which allow him to sway the feelings of millions.
“You and your husband. Sitting up here.” Now she became spiteful. More spiteful and evil than she thought herself capable. The injury of words. Yes, the brutality of words.
Liesel reacts after Frau Hermann, the mayor’s wife, tells Liesel that they will no longer need her Rosa to do their washing, a job that Liesel’s family needed. Liesel believes the Hermanns can still afford to pay Rosa if they want to, and she expresses her anger the best way she can. She recognizes a turning point as she prepares to use words to strike back. Liesel will go on to call Frau Hermann “pathetic” for continuing to feel sorry for herself about her son’s death. Liesel knows that these words can wound because she herself understands loss. She resents that Frau Hermann has the luxury to wallow in her grief.
Yes, the Führer decided that he would rule the world with words. “I will never fire a gun,” he devised. “I will not have to.”… His first plan of attack was to plant the words in as many areas of his homeland as possible. He planted them day and night, and cultivated them.
This excerpt comes from Max’s story titled “The Word Shaker,” which begins realistically but then continues as an allegory. In the story, “word shakers” are the people who know and control the power of words, which grow in trees. Most people do their word shaking in support of the Führer, but one—whom we recognize as Liesel—grows a different kind of tree, thanks to her understanding of a man whom readers recognize as Max. As Max notes, the Führer’s power comes almost entirely from his words and from other people spreading them, but if a word shaker spreads different words, those will also have power.
The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Führer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or wordly tricks to make us feel better.
Liesel encounters Max during his march to Dachau. This trauma, along with all of the other deaths and losses that she has witnessed over the past few years, makes Liesel break down as she stands in the Hermanns’ library. Here, she blames words for all of this suffering and death, and she proceeds to completely destroy one of Ilsa Hermann’s books. Liesel’s belief that words are the cause of the Führer’s power and all those associated losses has merit. However, words can be used to make good things happen, too, a possibility that Liesel, in her pain, cannot recognize at this moment.
Ilsa Hermann… gave her a reason to write her own words, to see that words had also brought her to life. “Don’t punish yourself,” she heard her say again, but there would be punishment and pain, and there would be happiness, too. That was writing.
Instead of being angry about Liesel’s destruction of her book—not to mention the repeated thefts from her library—Ilsa Hermann brings Liesel a blank notebook and asks Liesel to resist punishing herself for her actions. She does not want Liesel to avoid words as either a punishment for her bad behavior or because words can do harm. Instead, she wants Liesel to use her own power of words for good. Liesel recognizes that the act of writing carries its own pain and punishment, but she accepts the challenge. Ilsa Hermann knows that, in addition to having talent—and perhaps more important—Liesel has a story that should be told.