The Book Thief



  Papa stretched with his fists closed and his eyes grinding shut, and it was a morning that didn’t dare to be rainy. They each stood and walked to the kitchen, and through the fog and frost of the window, they were able to see the pink bars of light on the snowy banks of Himmel Street’s rooftops.

  “Look at the colors,” Papa said. It’s hard not to like a man who not only notices the colors, but speaks them.

  Liesel still held the book. She gripped it tighter as the snow turned orange. On one of the rooftops, she could see a small boy, sitting, looking at the sky. “His name was Werner,” she mentioned. The words trotted out, involuntarily.

  Papa said, “Yes.”

  At school during that time, there had been no more reading tests, but as Liesel slowly gathered confidence, she did pick up a stray textbook before class one morning to see if she could read it without trouble. She could read every word, but she remained stranded at a much slower pace than that of her classmates. It’s much easier, she realized, to be on the verge of something than to actually be it. This would still take time.

  One afternoon, she was tempted to steal a book from the class bookshelf, but frankly, the prospect of another corridor Watschen at the hands of Sister Maria was a powerful enough deterrent. On top of that, there was actually no real desire in her to take the books from school. It was most likely the intensity of her November failure that caused this lack of interest, but Liesel wasn’t sure. She only knew that it was there.

  In class, she did not speak.

  She didn’t so much as look the wrong way.

  As winter set in, she was no longer a victim of Sister Maria’s frustrations, preferring to watch as others were marched out to the corridor and given their just rewards. The sound of another student struggling in the hallway was not particularly enjoyable, but the fact that it was someone else was, if not a true comfort, a relief.

  When school broke up briefly for Weihnachten, Liesel even afforded Sister Maria a “merry Christmas” before going on her way. Knowing that the Hubermanns were essentially broke, still paying off debts and paying rent quicker than the money could come in, she was not expecting a gift of any sort. Perhaps only some better food. To her surprise, on Christmas Eve, after sitting in church at midnight with Mama, Papa, Hans Junior, and Trudy, she came home to find something wrapped in newspaper under the Christmas tree.

  “From Saint Niklaus,” Papa said, but the girl was not fooled. She hugged both her foster parents, with snow still laid across her shoulders.

  Unfurling the paper, she unwrapped two small books. The first one, Faust the Dog, was written by a man named Mattheus Ottleberg. All told, she would read that book thirteen times. On Christmas Eve, she read the first twenty pages at the kitchen table while Papa and Hans Junior argued about a thing she did not understand. Something called politics.

  Later, they read some more in bed, adhering to the tradition of circling the words she didn’t know and writing them down. Faust the Dog also had pictures—lovely curves and ears and caricatures of a German Shepherd with an obscene drooling problem and the ability to talk.

  The second book was called The Lighthouse and was written by a woman, Ingrid Rippinstein. That particular book was a little longer, so Liesel was able to get through it only nine times, her pace increasing ever so slightly by the end of such prolific readings.

  It was a few days after Christmas that she asked a question regarding the books. They were eating in the kitchen. Looking at the spoonfuls of pea soup entering Mama’s mouth, she decided to shift her focus to Papa. “There’s something I need to ask.”

  At first, there was nothing.

  “And?”

  It was Mama, her mouth still half full.

  “I just wanted to know how you found the money to buy my books.”

  A short grin was smiled into Papa’s spoon. “You really want to know?”

  “Of course.”

  From his pocket, Papa took what was left of his tobacco ration and began rolling a cigarette, at which Liesel became impatient.

  “Are you going to tell me or not?”

  Papa laughed. “But I am telling you, child.” He completed the production of one cigarette, flipped it on the table, and began on another. “Just like this.”

  That was when Mama finished her soup with a clank, suppressed a cardboard burp, and answered for him. “That Saukerl,” she said. “You know what he did? He rolled up all of his filthy cigarettes, went to the market when it was in town, and traded them with some gypsy.”

  “Eight cigarettes per book.” Papa shoved one to his mouth, in triumph. He lit up and took in the smoke. “Praise the Lord for cigarettes, huh, Mama?”

  Mama only handed him one of her trademark looks of disgust, followed by the most common ration of her vocabulary. “Saukerl.”

  Liesel swapped a customary wink with her papa and finished eating her soup. As always, one of her books was next to her. She could not deny that the answer to her question had been more than satisfactory. There were not many people who could say that their education had been paid for with cigarettes.

  Mama, on the other hand, said that if Hans Hubermann was any good at all, he would trade some tobacco for the new dress she was in desperate need of or some better shoes. “But no …” She emptied the words out into the sink. “When it comes to me, you’d rather smoke a whole ration, wouldn’t you? Plus some of next door’s.”

  A few nights later, however, Hans Hubermann came home with a box of eggs. “Sorry, Mama.” He placed them on the table. “They were all out of shoes.”

  Mama didn’t complain.

  She even sang to herself while she cooked those eggs to the brink of burndom. It appeared that there was great joy in cigarettes, and it was a happy time in the Hubermann household.

  It ended a few weeks later.

  THE TOWN WALKER

  The rot started with the washing and it rapidly increased.

  When Liesel accompanied Rosa Hubermann on her deliveries across Molching, one of her customers, Ernst Vogel, informed them that he could no longer afford to have his washing and ironing done. “The times,” he excused himself, “what can I say? They’re getting harder. The war’s making things tight.” He looked at the girl. “I’m sure you get an allowance for keeping the little one, don’t you?”

  To Liesel’s dismay, Mama was speechless.

  An empty bag was at her side.

  Come on, Liesel.

  It was not said. It was pulled along, rough-handed.

  Vogel called out from his front step. He was perhaps five foot nine and his greasy scraps of hair swung lifelessly across his forehead. “I’m sorry, Frau Hubermann!”

  Liesel waved at him.

  He waved back.

  Mama castigated.

  “Don’t wave to that Arschloch,” she said. “Now hurry up.”

  That night, when Liesel had a bath, Mama scrubbed her especially hard, muttering the whole time about that Vogel Saukerl and imitating him at two-minute intervals. “‘You must get an allowance for the girl ….’” She berated Liesel’s naked chest as she scrubbed away. “You’re not worth that much, Saumensch. You’re not making me rich, you know.”

  Liesel sat there and took it.

  Not more than a week after that particular incident, Rosa hauled her into the kitchen. “Right, Liesel.” She sat her down at the table. “Since you spend half your time on the street playing soccer, you can make yourself useful out there. For a change.”

  Liesel watched only her own hands. “What is it, Mama?”

  “From now on you’re going to pick up and deliver the washing for me. Those rich people are less likely to fire us if you’re the one standing in front of them. If they ask you where I am, tell them I’m sick. And look sad when you tell them. You’re skinny and pale enough to get their pity.”

  “Herr Vogel didn’t pity me.”

  “Well …” Her agitation was obvious. “The others might. So don’t argue.”

  “Yes, Mama.€


  For a moment, it appeared that her foster mother would comfort her or pat her on the shoulder.

  Good girl, Liesel. Good girl. Pat, pat, pat.

  She did no such thing.

  Instead, Rosa Hubermann stood up, selected a wooden spoon, and held it under Liesel’s nose. It was a necessity as far as she was concerned. “When you’re out on that street, you take the bag to each place and you bring it straight home, with the money, even though it’s next to nothing. No going to Papa if he’s actually working for once. No mucking around with that little Saukerl, Rudy Steiner. Straight. Home.”

  “Yes, Mama.”

  “And when you hold that bag, you hold it properly. You don’t swing it, drop it, crease it, or throw it over your shoulder.”

  “Yes, Mama.”

  “Yes, Mama.” Rosa Hubermann was a great imitator, and a fervent one. “You’d better not, Saumensch. I’ll find out if you do; you know that, don’t you?”

  “Yes, Mama.”

  Saying those two words was often the best way to survive, as was doing what she was told, and from there, Liesel walked the streets of Molching, from the poor end to the rich, picking up and delivering the washing. At first, it was a solitary job, which she never complained about. After all, the very first time she took the sack through town, she turned the corner onto Munich Street, looked both ways, and gave it one enormous swing—a whole revolution—and then checked the contents inside. Thankfully, there were no creases. No wrinkles. Just a smile, and a promise never to swing it again.

  Overall, Liesel enjoyed it. There was no share of the pay, but she was out of the house, and walking the streets without Mama was heaven in itself. No finger-pointing or cursing. No people staring at them as she was sworn at for holding the bag wrong. Nothing but serenity.

  She came to like the people, too:

  * The Pfaffelhürvers, inspecting the clothes and saying, “Ja, ja, sehr gut, sehr gut.” Liesel imagined that they did everything twice.

  * Gentle Helena Schmidt, handing the money over with an arthritic curl of the hand.

  * The Weingartners, whose bent-whiskered cat always answered the door with them. Little Goebbels, that’s what they called him, after Hitler’s right-hand man.

  * And Frau Hermann, the mayor’s wife, standing fluffy-haired and shivery in her enormous, cold-aired doorway. Always silent. Always alone. No words, not once.

  Sometimes Rudy came along.

  “How much money do you have there?” he asked one afternoon. It was nearly dark and they were walking onto Himmel Street, past the shop. “You’ve heard about Frau Diller, haven’t you? They say she’s got candy hidden somewhere, and for the right price …”

  “Don’t even think about it.” Liesel, as always, was gripping the money hard. “It’s not so bad for you—you don’t have to face my mama.”

  Rudy shrugged. “It was worth a try.”

  In the middle of January, schoolwork turned its attention to letter writing. After learning the basics, each student was to write two letters, one to a friend and one to somebody in another class.

  Liesel’s letter from Rudy went like this:

  Dear Saumensch,

  Are you still as useless at soccer as you were the last time we played? I hope so. That means I can run past you again just like Jesse Owens at the Olympics ….

  When Sister Maria found it, she asked him a question, very amiably.

  SISTER MARIA’S OFFER

  “Do you feel like visiting the corridor, Mr. Steiner?”

  Needless to say, Rudy answered in the negative, and the paper was torn up and he started again. The second attempt was written to someone named Liesel and inquired as to what her hobbies might be.

  At home, while completing a letter for homework, Liesel decided that writing to Rudy or some other Saukerl was actually ridiculous. It meant nothing. As she wrote in the basement, she spoke over to Papa, who was repainting the wall again.

  Both he and the paint fumes turned around. “Was wuistz?” Now this was the roughest form of German a person could speak, but it was spoken with an air of absolute pleasantness. “Yeah, what?”

  “Would I be able to write a letter to Mama?”

  A pause.

  “What do you want to write a letter to her for? You have to put up with her every day.” Papa was schmunzeling—a sly smile. “Isn’t that bad enough?”

  “Not that mama.” She swallowed.

  “Oh.” Papa returned to the wall and continued painting. “Well, I guess so. You could send it to what’s-her-name—the one who brought you here and visited those few times—from the foster people.”

  “Frau Heinrich.”

  “That’s right. Send it to her. Maybe she can send it on to your mother.” Even at the time, he sounded unconvincing, as if he wasn’t telling Liesel something. Word of her mother had also been tight-lipped on Frau Heinrich’s brief visits.

  Instead of asking him what was wrong, Liesel began writing immediately, choosing to ignore the sense of foreboding that was quick to accumulate inside her. It took three hours and six drafts to perfect the letter, telling her mother all about Molching, her papa and his accordion, the strange but true ways of Rudy Steiner, and the exploits of Rosa Hubermann. She also explained how proud she was that she could now read and write a little. The next day, she posted it at Frau Diller’s with a stamp from the kitchen drawer. And she began to wait.

  The night she wrote the letter, she overheard a conversation between Hans and Rosa.

  “What’s she doing writing to her mother?” Mama was saying. Her voice was surprisingly calm and caring. As you can imagine, this worried the girl a great deal. She’d have preferred to hear them arguing. Whispering adults hardly inspired confidence.

  “She asked me,” Papa answered, “and I couldn’t say no. How could I?”

  “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” Again with the whisper. “She should just forget her. Who knows where she is? Who knows what they’ve done to her?”

  In bed, Liesel hugged herself tight. She balled herself up. She thought of her mother and repeated Rosa Hubermann’s questions.

  Where was she?

  What had they done to her?

  And once and for all, who, in actual fact, were they?

  DEAD LETTERS

  Flash forward to the basement, September 1943.

  A fourteen-year-old girl is writing in a small dark-covered book. She is bony but strong and has seen many things. Papa sits with the accordion at his feet.

  He says, “You know, Liesel? I nearly wrote you a reply and signed your mother’s name.” He scratches his leg, where the plaster used to be. “But I couldn’t. I couldn’t bring myself.”

  Several times, through the remainder of January and the entirety of February 1940, when Liesel searched the mailbox for a reply to her letter, it clearly broke her foster father’s heart. “I’m sorry,” he would tell her. “Not today, huh?” In hindsight, she saw that the whole exercise had been pointless. Had her mother been in a position to do so, she would have already made contact with the foster care people, or directly with the girl, or the Hubermanns. But there had been nothing.

  To lend insult to injury, in mid-February, Liesel was given a letter from another ironing customer, the Pfaffelhürvers, from Heide Strasse. The pair of them stood with great tallness in the doorway, giving her a melancholic regard. “For your mama,” the man said, handing her the envelope. “Tell her we’re sorry. Tell her we’re sorry.”

  That was not a good night in the Hubermann residence.

  Even when Liesel retreated to the basement to write her fifth letter to her mother (all but the first one yet to be sent), she could hear Rosa swearing and carrying on about those Pfaffelhürver Arschlöcher and that lousy Ernst Vogel.

  “Feuer soll’n’s brunzen für einen Monat!” she heard her call out. Translation: “They should all piss fire for a month!”

  Liesel wrote.

  When her birthday came around, there was no gift. There was no gift
because there was no money, and at the time, Papa was out of tobacco.

  “I told you.” Mama pointed a finger at him. “I told you not to give her both books at Christmas. But no. Did you listen? Of course not!”

  “I know!” He turned quietly to the girl. “I’m sorry, Liesel. We just can’t afford it.”

  Liesel didn’t mind. She didn’t whine or moan or stamp her feet. She simply swallowed the disappointment and decided on one calculated risk—a present from herself. She would gather all of the accrued letters to her mother, stuff them into one envelope, and use just a tiny portion of the washing and ironing money to mail it. Then, of course, she would take the Watschen, most likely in the kitchen, and she would not make a sound.

  Three days later, the plan came to fruition.

  “Some of it’s missing.” Mama counted the money a fourth time, with Liesel over at the stove. It was warm there and it cooked the fast flow of her blood. “What happened, Liesel?”

  She lied. “They must have given me less than usual.”

  “Did you count it?”

  She broke. “I spent it, Mama.”

  Rosa came closer. This was not a good sign. She was very close to the wooden spoons. “You what?”

  Before she could answer, the wooden spoon came down on Liesel Meminger’s body like the gait of God. Red marks like footprints, and they burned. From the floor, when it was over, the girl actually looked up and explained.

  There was pulse and yellow light, all together. Her eyes blinked. “I mailed my letters.”

  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.

  Above her, Rosa appeared to be smudged, but she soon clarified as her cardboard face loomed closer. Dejected, she stood there in all her plumpness, holding the wooden spoon at her side like a club. She reached down and leaked a little. “I’m sorry, Liesel.”