The Book Thief



  The beginning was actually a week or so earlier than June 24. Liesel scavenged a newspaper for Max Vandenburg as she always did. She reached into a garbage can just off Munich Street and tucked it under her arm. Once she delivered it to Max and he’d commenced his first reading, he glanced across at her and pointed to a picture on the front page. “Isn’t this whose washing and ironing you deliver?”

  Liesel came over from the wall. She’d been writing the word argument six times, next to Max’s picture of the ropy cloud and the dripping sun. Max handed her the paper and she confirmed it. “That’s him.”

  When she went on to read the article, Heinz Hermann, the mayor, was quoted as saying that although the war was progressing splendidly, the people of Molching, like all responsible Germans, should take adequate measures and prepare for the possibility of harder times. “You never know,” he stated, “what our enemies are thinking, or how they will try to debilitate us.”

  A week later, the mayor’s words came to nasty fruition. Liesel, as she always did, showed up at Grande Strasse and read from The Whistler on the floor of the mayor’s library. The mayor’s wife showed no signs of abnormality (or, let’s be frank, no additional signs) until it was time to leave.

  This time, when she offered Liesel The Whistler, she insisted on the girl taking it. “Please.” She almost begged. The book was held out in a tight, measured fist. “Take it. Please, take it.”

  Liesel, touched by the strangeness of this woman, couldn’t bear to disappoint her again. The gray-covered book with its yellowing pages found its way into her hand and she began to walk the corridor. As she was about to ask for the washing, the mayor’s wife gave her a final look of bathrobed sorrow. She reached into the chest of drawers and withdrew an envelope. Her voice, lumpy from lack of use, coughed out the words. “I’m sorry. It’s for your mama.”

  Liesel stopped breathing.

  She was suddenly aware of how empty her feet felt inside her shoes. Something ridiculed her throat. She trembled. When finally she reached out and took possession of the letter, she noticed the sound of the clock in the library. Grimly, she realized that clocks don’t make a sound that even remotely resembles ticking, tocking. It was more the sound of a hammer, upside down, hacking methodically at the earth. It was the sound of a grave. If only mine was ready now, she thought—because Liesel Meminger, at that moment, wanted to die. When the others had canceled, it hadn’t hurt so much. There was always the mayor, his library, and her connection with his wife. Also, this was the last one, the last hope, gone. This time, it felt like the greatest betrayal.

  How could she face her mama?

  For Rosa, the few scraps of money had still helped in various alleyways. An extra handful of flour. A piece of fat.

  Ilsa Hermann was dying now herself—to get rid of her. Liesel could see it somewhere in the way she hugged the robe a little tighter. The clumsiness of sorrow still kept her at close proximity, but clearly, she wanted this to be over. “Tell your mama,” she spoke again. Her voice was adjusting now, as one sentence turned into two. “That we’re sorry.” She started shepherding the girl toward the door.

  Liesel felt it now in the shoulders. The pain, the impact of final rejection.

  That’s it? she asked internally. You just boot me out?

  Slowly, she picked up her empty bag and edged toward the door. Once outside, she turned and faced the mayor’s wife for the second to last time that day. She looked her in the eyes with an almost savage brand of pride. “Danke schön,” she said, and Ilsa Hermann smiled in a rather useless, beaten way.

  “If you ever want to come just to read,” the woman lied (or at least the girl, in her shocked, saddened state, perceived it as a lie), “you’re very welcome.”

  At that moment, Liesel was amazed by the width of the doorway. There was so much space. Why did people need so much space to get through the door? Had Rudy been there, he’d have called her an idiot—it was to get all their stuff inside.

  “Goodbye,” the girl said, and slowly, with great morosity, the door was closed.

  Liesel did not leave.

  • • •

  For a long time, she sat on the steps and watched Molching. It was neither warm nor cool and the town was clear and still. Molching was in a jar.

  She opened the letter. In it, Mayor Heinz Hermann diplomatically outlined exactly why he had to terminate the services of Rosa Hubermann. For the most part, he explained that he would be a hypocrite if he maintained his own small luxuries while advising others to prepare for harder times.

  When she eventually stood and walked home, her moment of reaction came once again when she saw the STEINER-SCHNEIDER-MEISTER sign on Munich Street. Her sadness left her and she was overwhelmed with anger. “That bastard mayor,” she whispered. “That pathetic woman.” The fact that harder times were coming was surely the best reason for keeping Rosa employed, but no, they fired her. At any rate, she decided, they could do their own blasted washing and ironing, like normal people. Like poor people.

  In her hand, The Whistler tightened.

  “So you give me the book,” the girl said, “for pity—to make yourself feel better ….” The fact that she’d also been offered the book prior to that day mattered little.

  She turned as she had once before and marched back to 8 Grande Strasse. The temptation to run was immense, but she refrained so that she’d have enough in reserve for the words.

  When she arrived, she was disappointed that the mayor himself was not there. No car was slotted nicely on the side of the road, which was perhaps a good thing. Had it been there, there was no telling what she might have done to it in this moment of rich versus poor.

  Two steps at a time, she reached the door and banged it hard enough to hurt. She enjoyed the small fragments of pain.

  Evidently, the mayor’s wife was shocked when she saw her again. Her fluffy hair was slightly wet and her wrinkles widened when she noticed the obvious fury on Liesel’s usually pallid face. She opened her mouth, but nothing came out, which was handy, really, for it was Liesel who possessed the talking.

  “You think,” she said, “you can buy me off with this book?” Her voice, though shaken, hooked at the woman’s throat. The glittering anger was thick and unnerving, but she toiled through it. She worked herself up even further, to the point where she needed to wipe the tears from her eyes. “You give me this Saumensch of a book and think it’ll make everything good when I go and tell my mama that we’ve just lost our last one? While you sit here in your mansion?”

  The mayor’s wife’s arms.

  They hung.

  Her face slipped.

  Liesel, however, did not buckle. She sprayed her words directly into the woman’s eyes.

  “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.

  She summoned them from someplace she only now recognized and hurled them at Ilsa Hermann. “It’s about time,” she informed her, “that you do your own stinking washing anyway. It’s about time you faced the fact that your son is dead. He got killed! He got strangled and cut up more than twenty years ago! Or did he freeze to death? Either way, he’s dead! He’s dead and it’s pathetic that you sit here shivering in your own house to suffer for it. You think you’re the only one?”

  Immediately.

  Her brother was next to her.

  He whispered for her to stop, but he, too, was dead, and not worth listening to.

  He died in a train.

  They buried him in the snow.

  Liesel glanced at him, but she could not make herself stop. Not yet.

  “This book,” she went on. She shoved the boy down the steps, making him fall. “I don’t want it.” The words were quieter now, but still just as hot. She threw The Whistler at the woman’s slippered feet, hearing the clack of it as it landed on the cement. “I don’t want your miserable book
….”

  Now she managed it. She fell silent.

  Her throat was barren now. No words for miles.

  Her brother, holding his knee, disappeared.

  After a miscarriaged pause, the mayor’s wife edged forward and picked up the book. She was battered and beaten up, and not from smiling this time. Liesel could see it on her face. Blood leaked from her nose and licked at her lips. Her eyes had blackened. Cuts had opened up and a series of wounds were rising to the surface of her skin. All from the words. From Liesel’s words.

  Book in hand, and straightening from a crouch to a standing hunch, Ilsa Hermann began the process again of saying sorry, but the sentence did not make it out.

  Slap me, Liesel thought. Come on, slap me.

  Ilsa Hermann didn’t slap her. She merely retreated backward, into the ugly air of her beautiful house, and Liesel, once again, was left alone, clutching at the steps. She was afraid to turn around because she knew that when she did, the glass casing of Molching had now been shattered, and she’d be glad of it.

  As her last orders of business, she read the letter one more time, and when she was close to the gate, she screwed it up as tightly as she could and threw it at the door, as if it were a rock. I have no idea what the book thief expected, but the ball of paper hit the mighty sheet of wood and twittered back down the steps. It landed at her feet.

  “Typical,” she stated, kicking it onto the grass. “Useless.”

  On the way home this time, she imagined the fate of that paper the next time it rained, when the mended glass house of Molching was turned upside down. She could already see the words dissolving letter by letter, till there was nothing left. Just paper. Just earth.

  At home, as luck would have it, when Liesel walked through the door, Rosa was in the kitchen. “And?” she asked. “Where’s the washing?”

  “No washing today,” Liesel told her.

  Rosa came and sat down at the kitchen table. She knew. Suddenly, she appeared much older. Liesel imagined what she’d look like if she untied her bun, to let it fall out onto her shoulders. A gray towel of elastic hair.

  “What did you do there, you little Saumensch?” The sentence was numb. She could not muster her usual venom.

  “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.”

  Rosa touched one and picked it up, but she did not wield it. “I don’t believe you.”

  Liesel was torn between distress and total mystification. The one time she desperately wanted a Watschen and she couldn’t get one! “It’s my fault.”

  “It’s not your fault,” Mama said, and she even stood and stroked Liesel’s waxy, unwashed hair. “I know you wouldn’t say those things.”

  “I said them!”

  “All right, you said them.”

  As Liesel left the room, she could hear the wooden spoons clicking back into position in the metal jar that held them. By the time she reached her bedroom, the whole lot of them, the jar included, were thrown to the floor.

  Later, she walked down to the basement, where Max was standing in the dark, most likely boxing with the Führer.

  “Max?” The light dimmed on—a red coin, floating in the corner. “Can you teach me how to do the push-ups?”

  Max showed her and occasionally lifted her torso to help, but despite her bony appearance, Liesel was strong and could hold her body weight nicely. She didn’t count how many she could do, but that night, in the glow of the basement, the book thief completed enough pushups to make her hurt for several days. Even when Max advised her that she’d already done too many, she continued.

  In bed, she read with Papa, who could tell something was wrong. It was the first time in a month that he’d come in and sat with her, and she was comforted, if only slightly. Somehow, Hans Hubermann always knew what to say, when to stay, and when to leave her be. Perhaps Liesel was the one thing he was a true expert at.

  “Is it the washing?” he asked.

  Liesel shook her head.

  Papa hadn’t shaved for a few days and he rubbed the scratchy whiskers every two or three minutes. His silver eyes were flat and calm, slightly warm, as they always were when it came to Liesel.

  When the reading petered out, Papa fell asleep. It was then that Liesel spoke what she’d wanted to say all along.

  “Papa,” she whispered, “I think I’m going to hell.”

  Her legs were warm. Her knees were cold.

  She remembered the nights when she’d wet the bed and Papa had washed the sheets and taught her the letters of the alphabet. Now his breathing blew across the blanket and she kissed his scratchy cheek.

  “You need a shave,” she said.

  “You’re not going to hell,” Papa replied.

  For a few moments, she watched his face. Then she lay back down, leaned on him, and together, they slept, very much in Munich, but somewhere on the seventh side of Germany’s die.

  RUDY’S YOUTH

  In the end, she had to give it to him.

  He knew how to perform.

  A PORTRAIT OF RUDY STEINER:

  JULY 1941

  Strings of mud clench his face. His tie

  is a pendulum, long dead in its clock.

  His lemon, lamp-lit hair is disheveled

  and he wears a sad, absurd smile.

  He stood a few meters from the step and spoke with great conviction, great joy.

  “Alles ist Scheisse,” he announced.

  All is shit.

  In the first half of 1941, while Liesel went about the business of concealing Max Vandenburg, stealing newspapers, and telling off mayors’ wives, Rudy was enduring a new life of his own, at the Hitler Youth. Since early February, he’d been returning from the meetings in a considerably worse state than he’d left in. On many of those return trips, Tommy Müller was by his side, in the same condition. The trouble had three elements to it.

  A TRIPLE-TIERED PROBLEM

  1. Tommy Müller’s ears.

  2. Franz Deutscher—the irate Hitler Youth leader.

  3. Rudy’s inability to stay out of things.

  If only Tommy Müller hadn’t disappeared for seven hours on one of the coldest days in Munich’s history, six years earlier. His ear infections and nerve damage were still contorting the marching pattern at the Hitler Youth, which, I can assure you, was not a positive thing.

  To begin with, the downward slide of momentum was gradual, but as the months progressed, Tommy was consistently gathering the ire of the Hitler Youth leaders, especially when it came to the marching. Remember Hitler’s birthday the previous year? For some time, the ear infections were getting worse. They had reached the point where Tommy had genuine problems hearing. He could not make out the commands that were shouted at the group as they marched in line. It didn’t matter if it was in the hall or outside, in the snow or the mud or the slits of rain.

  The goal was always to have everyone stop at the same time.

  “One click!” they were told. “That’s all the Führer wants to hear. Everyone united. Everyone together as one!”

  Then Tommy.

  It was his left ear, I think. That was the most troublesome of the two, and when the bitter cry of “Halt!” wet the ears of everybody else, Tommy marched comically and obliviously on. He could transform a marching line into a dog’s breakfast in the blink of an eye.

  On one particular Saturday, at the beginning of July, just after three-thirty and a litany of Tommy-inspired failed marching attempts, Franz Deutscher (the ultimate name for the ultimate teenage Nazi) was completely fed up.

  “Müller, du Affe!” His thick blond hair massaged his head and his words manipulated Tommy’s face. “You ape—what’s wrong with you?”

  Tommy slouched fearfully back, but his left cheek still managed to twitch in a manic, ch
eerful contortion. He appeared not only to be laughing with a triumphant smirk, but accepting the bucketing with glee. And Franz Deutscher wasn’t having any of it. His pale eyes cooked him.

  “Well?” he asked. “What can you say for yourself?”

  Tommy’s twitch only increased, in both speed and depth.

  “Are you mocking me?”

  “Heil,” twitched Tommy, in a desperate attempt to buy some approval, but he did not make it to the “Hitler” part.

  That was when Rudy stepped forward. He faced Franz Deutscher, looking up at him. “He’s got a problem, sir—”

  “I can see that!”

  “With his ears,” Rudy finished. “He can’t—”

  “Right, that’s it.” Deutscher rubbed his hands together. “Both of you—six laps of the grounds.” They obeyed, but not fast enough. “Schnell!” His voice chased them.

  When the six laps were completed, they were given some drills of the run-drop down-get up-get down again variety, and after fifteen very long minutes, they were ordered to the ground for what should have been the last time.

  Rudy looked down.

  A warped circle of mud grinned up at him.

  What might you be looking at? it seemed to ask.

  “Down!” Franz ordered.

  Rudy naturally jumped over it and dropped to his stomach.

  “Up!” Franz smiled. “One step back.” They did it. “Down!”

  The message was clear and now, Rudy accepted it. He dived at the mud and held his breath, and at that moment, lying ear to sodden earth, the drill ended.

  “Vielen Dank, meine Herren,” Franz Deutscher politely said. “Many thanks, my gentlemen.”

  Rudy climbed to his knees, did some gardening in his ear, and looked across at Tommy.

  Tommy closed his eyes, and he twitched.