Welcome to the third week of our readalong of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which we’re all reading together for the first time here on the blog.
Let’s get right to the discussion.
The Book Thief Readalong: Week Three
Pages 304 – 403 (Part 8)
Wendy: I mentioned last week that Bonnie said it was better! I should have listened to her and switched over, too.
K: I’ve never really gotten into audios. I just don’t think it would be the same. I think the voice in my head would get offended. But I’m glad it’s made it easier for you, Kate.
Kate:I like the passage about war from Death’s perspective, and how it is not Death’s best friend, but rather “…it is like the new boss who expects the impossible. He stands over your shoulder repeating one thing, incessantly: ‘Get it done, get it done.’”
K: Yes. I think perhaps it’s meant to humanize Death — an attempt at getting readers to sympathize with him…which is a feat because how can one sympathize with Death? Funny how it’s human actions that enslaves Death. It puts things into perspective about how we’re doing so much damage that even Death can’t keep up.
Wendy: Max’s illness makes me so worried. This is the section of the book where I felt the most anxious, not only for his sake, but also for Liesel’s. It’s scary to be that age and think that you’re responsible for something so huge. I love the little presents she brings to him when he’s sleeping–that a button, a candy wrapper, a feather, or a cloud could help keep someone you love with you is such a poignant expression of hope.
I thought for a moment that he’d died, by the way. It was a terrible, terrible thing and I couldn’t quite believe I was wrong about his future. I was very relieved when it turned out all right, and I enjoyed how Liesel finds out he recovered.
Kate:I felt pretty confident that he couldn’t die until the scene from the movie trailer (which is not the author’s fault) where he’s hiding under the stairs when the Nazi guy (whose likeability made that scene very, very stressful for me, by the way–well done, Zusak!) inspects the basement, but I was worried, too, otherwise. I loved the scene with Rosa and Liesel at school when he wakes up.
K: I also really loved Liesel’s presents to Max. How ordinary things are made special. The descriptions in this part — so random and mundane yet somehow beautiful — really worked. I especially loved Liesel’s description of the cloud eclipsing the sun as “a white beast with a grey heart.”
Kate:Re: Max calling the snowman “A midget.” …Here’s the deal. I know that it was a different time. I totally get that. But I HATE when–especially in a book about a people being oppressed–a charming, likeable character says something that makes most of the audience laugh but would make a person from an oppressed group feel legit uncomfortable. Zusak hasn’t had anyone use the N word, you know, even in all that talk about Rudy’s blackface run around the track, because it wouldn’t be appropriate to this type of story. And I think substituting the N word for whatever pejorative your character is using is a pretty good litmus test here. Like, if the snow was dirty, so the snowman was dark-colored, and Max said, “A n—-,” that would be uncomfortable and not charming. So maybe don’t use “midget” either. Particularly in a book intended for young readers.
Wendy: I know what you’re saying, but I wonder if “midget” has as negative a connotation in Australia as it does here in the States? I know there’s a surfer who goes by “Midget” and I think I’ve seen the word use to note a diminutive more commonly. Given Joseph Mengele’s infamous experiments on dwarves at Auschwitz, however, it does seem like an unfortunate–and unnecessary–choice in words.
Kate:Oh, good point. Although I am reading the American version of the book, so if this is, indeed, a case of cultural differences between our countries, I wish the American editors had changed it.
“Melt it did, though, but somewhere in each of them, that snowman was still upright. It must have been the last thing they saw that Christmas Eve when they finally fell asleep.”
He so frequently knows everything–down to ridiculous details that no one would ever recount–of what people saw and heard in situations (like Rudy’s story about the monsters in coats visiting to get him to go away to Fancy Nazi Master Race School) where Liesel was not present, yet she was present here, and we’re getting speculation about what people saw and felt. It’s a really odd choice, and one that does not work for me. He also describes things the same way Liesel does, and when stories from other people show up in Liesel’s book, the descriptions are also in her voice.
Wendy: Yes, the inconsistency with Death’s narration is an ongoing struggle for me, too. His selective omniscience is frustrating.
K: I have one question. In Death’s Diary: Cologne, Death witnesses a bunch of girls looking at empty fuel containers…he says he notices something quite unique. But reading that part twice, I didn’t really understand. Was he simply comparing their situations? How the humans are collecting empty fuel containers while he collects soulless, spiritless corpses? Was that it?
Kate:I had to listen to this section more than once for reasons that I’ll explain below, and I did not get it. Maybe a commenter can explain it to us.
Kate:“Rosa, it started with Adolf” is an excellent line, and I love Hans for telling Liesel that she had to build the snowman. Very sweet. His refusal to let Liesel blame herself for what is going on is just lovely. Knowing–because a commenter told us–that Death is reading to us from a book Liesel wrote, I really, really, really love the characterization of Hans. This is how I would have written my father when I was a child. He was magical and perfect and could do absolutely nothing wrong.
K: What I find really endearing between Hans and Liesel (and yes, even Rosa) is how such a bond can form between non-biologically related people. I don’t know if Zusak was at all trying to suggest what I’m thinking in any way or if I’m reading way into this but considering the tragic events of this book, about a time when all structure of life is altered if not destroyed, and when you really just have to make the best of things — that family is really what you make of it. Liesel lost her brother and mother and yet was able to form another set of family with her foster-parents. Strangers made into family. Broken pieces coming together to make each other whole again. Blah, I make no sense.
Kate:I found myself thinking about the whole, “It takes a village to raise a child” thing while I was reading this, actually, so I totally get what you’re saying.
Wendy: I love this.
Kate:I liked that part, too. I also think it’s funny that all Liesel’s books have titles that are the types of titles Zusak uses himself.
K: I was going to say that I just realized how Zusak personifies words and language. Words are always stumbling out of somebody’s mouth. Words are always making itself known to the person it’s being said to, heavy with truth. Words in The Book Thief injure and heal. Sometimes it’s very beautifully done.
Wendy: Possibly the only time Max’s illness didn’t hurt was at dinner. There was no denying it as the three of them sat at the kitchen table with their extra bread and extra soup or potatoes. They all thought it, but no one spoke.
I appreciate that this was included. One of the moments when you truly feel the war time setting, as well as how much the family sacrifices to help Max.
Kate:Yeah, I really liked this, too.
I was about to point another one of Death’s bolded interjections that didn’t work for me, but I think I’d rather just put myself on record withdrawing my statement (made during week one of our discussion) that this device is awesome. I do not like it at all. It pulls me out of the story and makes me roll my eyes.
Wendy: I don’t really like it as a whole. It’s occasionally amusing, but mostly it just makes me want to punch things. And I will go on record as saying I would like this book at least a half a star’s worth more if Death wasn’t so intrusive.
Kate:When Hans told Liesel not to get caught when she told him that a nun gave her the book… I loved this. It felt so real and sweet. Because of course he knows that she’s been stealing.
K: After Liesel reads the final page of The Whistler, I believe, Hans is taken aback by the obviously disturbing premise of the book and exclaims again that a nun had given that book to her…so at that point, I thought Hans believed Liesel’s lie…
Kate:Oh. Hmm. I may have tuned the audiobook out at some point, because I don’t remember that AT ALL.
Kate:I know. Poor Max.
Wendy: I do like this bit of Death’s narration at 60%, with the five hundred souls. Although I don’t like that he feels tired. And then he feels cold and shivers–I don’t really understand the purpose of anthropomorphizing him in this way. Well, I guess I understand the purpose, I just don’t like it.
Kate:I agree with all of this.
Wendy: “They were French, they were Jew, and they were you” is an effective line, though. I understand where he’s going with that and the whole “look in the mirror” moment, that it is humans who have done this atrocity to themselves–but the storytelling device, as we keep saying, keeps me from really feeling it. There are moments where I see a flash of an inspired idea or lovely writing, but as a whole I’m so distracted that I have trouble connecting in a deeply emotional way.
Wendy: The scenes with the raids are well done. I like that Liesel reads to them from The Whistler. Poor Max, all alone. I have to say, every time “Himmel Street” is used, ie “was untouched” or “From a Himmel Street window,” he wrote, “the stars set fire to my eyes” I automatically substitute “heaven” in there. Which I’m sure is deliberate. Again, I should not be analyzing the technicalities of the writing so much.
But this: “You’ve done enough.” Oh, Max!
Kate:I know. Max is the love of my heart. He feels such guilt for things that are beyond his control.
K: Considering our feelings towards this book, not many moments have really gotten to me. But that got to me.
Wendy: The moment when Liesel finds Mama fallen asleep over her husband’s accordion was also incredibly touching. It’s an unexpected glimpse into Rosa, and not overly written at all.
Kate:Yes. What a beautiful moment.
K: Rosa’s my home girl.
Kate:There is a part where Death says a girl has “period freckles,” and I thought he was referring to menstruation–like, that they were that shade of red or that they were hormonal pimples–until he added later on that her freckles had lengthened to look like commas. Then I laughed, because, seriously, how dumb of me.
Wendy: Hah hah, Kate!
K: Not dumb, Kate. Just a bad choice of word — another insight into Zusak’s lack in comprehending female intuition.
Wendy: I quite liked The Word Shaker as well. I find that I love this author’s picture books much more intensely than I do his real book, which is a shame. I like the simplicity of them, as well as the purity of the emotion. Also a point in their favor: uncluttered by Death.
Kate:I’ll have to scroll through the e-book to find this–obviously I did not experience it in the audiobook.
Wendy: I’d actually like to leaf through a physical book to see the illustrations better at some point, because straining to look at them on my Kindle doesn’t really do them justice.