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The Book Thief

Markus Zusak

Part Two

Prologue and Part One

Part Three

Summary

Germans, Death declares, love to burn things. He points as evidence to the upcoming celebration of Hitler’s birthday, April 20, during which the residents of Molching will burn books by non-Aryan authors. Meanwhile, Liesel is becoming more accomplished in her reading and writing and is rewarded at Christmas with two books that Hans traded cigarettes for. Liesel continues helping Rosa deliver the washing, but with war becoming more of a reality, many of Rosa’s customers discontinue their patronage. Rosa decides to send Liesel on her own to pick up and deliver laundry, assuming the customers will be less likely to tell a young girl they can no longer afford to send out their washing. As an assignment for school, Liesel writes a letter to her mother, and begins waiting for a reply. The social worker who delivered Liesel to the Hubermanns arrives and informs Liesel that she has lost contact with Liesel’s mother, but Liesel continues to hope for a response to her letter.

On the day of Hitler’s birthday, the town decorates the streets with German flags and Nazi swastikas. When the Hubermanns can’t find their flag, Rosa frets that the Nazis will come and take them away. But at last the flag is found in time for the parade. The Hubermanns’ children, Hans Jr. and Trudy, come home for the celebration, and Hans Jr. fights with his father about Hitler. The older Hans has been called “the Jew painter” for painting over slurs written on Jewish shop fronts. Hans Jr. thinks it is a dangerous mistake for Hans not to be more aggressive in his application to join the Nazi party, and accuses his father of not caring about Germany. Seeing Liesel reading quietly, he asserts that she should be reading MKPF instead. Calling his father a coward, he storms out of the house.

After a parade by the Hitler Youth, carts of books, newspapers, pamphlets, magazines, and posters considered unsympathetic to the Nazi Party are wheeled into the town square and arranged in a pile. As a Nazi official rails against Jews and Communists, Liesel connects what happened to her parents to Hitler and his policies. As she struggles to get out of the crowd, she sees her classmate, Ludwig Schmeikl, who is trapped with a hurt ankle. She helps him escape, and he apologies for teasing her. The bonfire is lit. Hans finds Liesel as the flames burn, and she informs him she hates Hitler. He slaps her across the face, and tells her she must never say such a thing in public. They practice saluting Hitler. As the fire burns itself out and darkness falls, Liesel notices a book that has not been burned. While the soldiers tending the fire are not paying attention, she sneaks forward and steals the book, hiding it in her shirt. Only after she has the book does she realize she has been observed by a figure with fluffy hair. The book is called The Shoulder Shrug and it burns her inside her shirt as she walks home with Papa.

Analysis

External forces insert themselves more directly into the narrative in Part Two, as Liesel and her family feel the effects of Hitler’s encroaching presence. The link between the personal and the political is made explicit, as Liesel connects Hitler to the disappearance of her parents. She begins to express some of her anger and sadness at their disappearance, developing the passionate hatred of Hitler. She also expresses a desire for revenge, an impulse we see fueling her actions at times throughout the rest of the story. But Liesel is not the only one suffering from the political situation. Differing views about the importance of allegiance to the Nazi Party and Germany cause a rift between Hans and his son, and Hans’s sympathy for the Jews in Molching foreshadows events to come.

The challenges of being courageous in the politically complex and perilous context of Nazi Germany come to the fore in this section, and we see Liesel beginning to learn from Hans’s example. Hans has been helping Jews by painting over the slurs on their shops, but because the act runs counter to Nazi ideology, it puts Hans at risk from those, like Hans Jr., who won’t tolerate any deviation from the Nazi agenda. The contradiction involved is immediately apparent: By doing what he considers right, Hans could be punished. Though his son calls him a “coward” for essentially not believing in the German ideal, the reader recognizes Hans’s act as a brave and selfless one. Liesel seems to understand the distinction as well. Later, when she finds Ludwig Schmeikl, the same boy who made fun of her reading abilities, injured, she helps him, and though she doesn’t link her decision explicitly to Hans, it’s obvious that Hans would have done the same in that situation. Consciously or not, Liesel seems to be learning from his example.

But Liesel also learns that there’s a line she can’t cross, at least not publicly, when she says she hates Hitler for what he did to her family. Hans slaps her and makes her practice saluting Hitler in front of people, obviously to make sure they’re protected if anyone overheard Liesel’s comment. Hans’s worry is that Liesel and he could be punished for her dissent, and he explains the very important distinction between what you feel inwardly and how you behave outwardly. It’s a perfect example of the motif of duality that runs through the book, and Liesel understands right away that, for the sake of her and her family’s safety, she will need to maintain two lives: a public one and a private one.

In addition to the dramatic scene of the book burning, the main development in this section is Liesel’s increasing sophistication as a narrator of her own story, which correlates with her growing proficiency as a reader and writer. Her mastery of language allows her to see her specific situation in a larger context. When she announces to Hans that she hates Hitler, his violent reaction reveals the danger of language, and she becomes aware of the difference between public and private speech, agreeing to censor herself when she can be overheard by the wrong person. This theme will be developed more explicitly as increasing paranoia and fear of being taken away by the Nazis cause many of the characters to begin leading double lives, playing the role of patriotic citizens in public while trying to follow their own ethics in private, often at great personal risk. Because she is still a child, Liesel is more naïve about the potential consequences of her actions, and does not have as much to fear as some of the older characters. However, in stealing the book from the fire, she establishes herself as willing to risk her personal safety for books, which are increasingly important to her. This risk is dramatized both literally, in Liesel’s theft in clear sight of the soldiers, and also symbolically, when she puts in the book inside her shirt, where it burns her skin. The section also foreshadows the import the figure with the fluffy hair will play in Liesel’s life, by witnessing the risks she takes for books and not moving to stop or aid her.

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