This is a book review I completed for World Literature summer homework at Prairie Ridge High School.
The novel begins with an overview by Death, the narrator of the story. He describes the world in colors, and proceeds to introduce the main character of the story, a small girl named Liesel. Her mother, her brother, and she were riding a train to the central setting of the plot, Himmel Street in Germany. Due to political difficulties and conflicts, Liesel?s mother was forced to surrender her children to foster care, and the foster parents were to be Hans and Rosa Hubermann. However, during the ride to Himmel, Liesel?s younger brother died, and turned into a corpse that Death was to retrieve the soul of. Upon his arrival, Death remained present to observe the burial of the young child in the snowy, frosted, frozen ground. Just before leaving, Death noticed one more thing ? Liesel picking up a forgotten black book from the ground, titled The Grave Digger?s Handbook
, to mark the beginning of a life laced with extensive book thievery.
Liesel?s new home was a cramped neighborhood, holding the name of Himmel Street, translating into ?Heaven.? Her new foster mother, Rosa Hubermann, is a short, plump woman. She does a washing and ironing service for wealthier families for a living. To show her affection, she frequently insults and beats Liesel with wooden spoons. Her foster father, Hans Hubermann, on the other hand, is a calm and collected person who lovsed to smoke cigarettes he rolled himself. He paints homes and plays the piano for a living. His close relationship with Liesel budded when he rescued her from the snarling hands of the bathtub and taught her how to roll cigarettes instead. Hans helped Liesel through her toughest times, including when she woke up in the middle of the night from nightmares of her brother?s death.
As Liesel became accustomed to her new surroundings, she began to attend the Bund Deutscher M?dchen, part of a group of Hitler Youth ? she had arrived during the time of Nazism. In addition to participating in her contribution to her political leader, Liesel attended school where she met a colorful collection of students, including one named Rudy Steiner that longed to kiss her. After a day in school when she made a fool of herself by failing to read successfully in front of the class, Liesel proved that she was a girl to be respected by decimating two of her male classmates. Over time, Liesel avoided getting in as much trouble as she once did, and adopted a new hobby ? reading in the middle of the night with Hans.
One night, when Liesel wet her bed due to her recurring nightmares, and she and Hans began reading the book that she acquired the evening of her brother?s death, The Gravedigger’s Handbook
, after it was found while changing Liesel?s sheets. With the task challenging at first, Liesel and her papa began by reviewing the alphabet and correlating letters with words. Soon, they became dedicated to their work, and papa even excused Liesel from helping her mother picking up and dropping up clothing for their washing and ironing service to continue reading their handbook. With Liesel?s love of books only growing, Hans traded some of his cigarettes for a pair of books to gift Liesel with for Christmas ? Faust the Dog
and The Lighthouse
Not only did Liesel gain interest in reading, she also started writing as well. Practicing by writing on the basement walls, Liesel became skilled with words and soon began to write letters for her biological mother. Without knowing what had truly happened to her true mother, she wrote letters periodically and kept them safe until she was able to mail them. One day after collecting payment for Rosa Hubermann’s washing and ironing service, she spent a small portion of it for postage to mail her letters. After getting beaten by Rosa for spending her money, Rosa apologized to Liesel for the first time ? not for the beating, but because she knew Liesel would never really make contact with her biological mother ever again. Almost daily, Liesel went to check the mailbox for a response. She never got one.
Some time afterwards, a large event exposed Liesel to a new facet of the world. Liesel experienced her first Nazi book burning. The thrill of the moment captured Liesel?s attention, as she saw the piles of Jewish paraphernalia burst into flames. After the burning, Liesel asked Hans about her mother: why she was taken away from her, why she never responded to her letters, and where she was now. After establishing the idea that her mother could have been a communist, and she was likely taken away by the F?hrer, Liesel declared that she hated Hitler. For the first time, Hans struck Liesel, flat across the face, following up by stating that those words should never be said in public. Moments later, when her father was occupied with discussion, Liesel stole her next book, an undamaged book from the pile from the book burning. As she crept away with The Shoulder Shrug
, the heat emitting from the book burned her.
While going to pick up washing and ironing from the mayor?s house, Liesel discovered one day that Ilsa Hermann, the mayor?s wife, had and maintained a personal library in her home. After being invited into the mayor?s home, Liesel embraced the sight of a multitude of books, all properly organized in shelves. Returning periodically to pick up and return the washing and ironing, Liesel read a few pages from a book in the library each visit. In addition to reading, Liesel heard stories about Ilsa’s son and how he died. Before leaving that day, Liesel chose to say “I’m sorry” to Ilsa for what had happened to her son. Before Liesel heard the “For what?” she was already out the door.
Himmel Street was a poor place. Both Liesel and Rudy had difficulty surviving with the rations of food they were provided. One day, the pair ran into a boy with a massive mound of apples. Upon chasing him into the woods, Liesel and Rudy encountered Arthur Berg, a master thief, and their true thieving careers began. Their first successful raid was a farm with apple trees, and yielded a dozen apples to be split between Liesel and Rudy. After overeating, both threw up after returning to their homes because their stomachs weren?t used to it. Liesel blamed it on Rosa?s pea soup.
Finally, a Jewish man was introduced into the setting. Formerly a Jewish fist fighter, and a daring, perseverant man, Max Vandenburg was now confined to a storage space so he would not be caught and brutally punished by the Nazis. He had received a copy of Mein Kampf
from a man named Hans Hubermann. Max had never met this man before, but he was to find Hans in his house. Disguised as a German, he travelled to Himmel Street where Hans lived. He removed the key to the front door from the front cover of Mein Kampf
where it had been taped. After squeezing the key in his fist, he leaned forward to unlock the door.
The first third of the book has great significance, introducing the main plot and central setting of the book. Its purpose is to accustom the reader with the general flow of the natural lifestyle of the Hubermann family. It also serves to describe the types of relationships held between Liesel and a majority of the characters present in the story. Without this section, the book would be missing the most important part of its content. Readers would not understand the significance of Liesel?s life and the reason why the story is being told. Also, the last several pages provides an introduction and background information of a new character that is about to enter the story. Without this transition, the new character?s entrance would be abrupt and unexpected.
A question that I have about this section, as many people probably do also, is about the future integration of the Jewish fist fighter into the Hubermanns? lives. In the time of Nazis and Hitler, Germans were not permitted to house or shelter Jewish people. However, in the last chapter of the section, the narration suggests that the Jewish man traveled to the Hubermann household to receive housing: ?Now he turned on to the side street, making his way to number thirty-three, resisting the urge to smile, resisting the urge to sob or even imagine the safety that might be awaiting him.? The book mentioned earlier that Hans Hubermann had previously attempted to join the Nazi party. However, after being informed of the Jewish fist fighter and his quest for security in the Hubermann?s house, one comes to think that Hans may have applied for inclusion in the party for the sole purpose of masking a trait he may have ? love and sympathy for the Jewish.
The second third of the book starts off with the entrance of Max Vandenburg into the Hubermann household. He awkwardly asks Hans if he still plays the accordion, bridging into a flashback told by Death. Remembering the events of the Great War, Death proceeds to explain a day when Hans Hubermann was exempt from participating in a battle due to his writing ability. While he was helping the captain write letters, the other soldiers went into battle and did not return. Hans was the only soldier under his sergeant that was still alive. Hans had a good friend during this time whose family he tracked down after his return from the Great War. His friend was Erik Vandenburg ? Erik had taught Hans how to play the accordion. The strong friendship between the two made Hans feel obliged to help Erik?s son Max during a time when he needed help badly.
As Liesel introduces herself to the setting of the newcomer, wondering why a stranger was uncontrollably eating Rosa?s pea soup, she experienced a completely new feeling. As Rosa and Hans lectured her about the dangers of telling someone that there was a Jewish man hiding in their basement, Liesel complied but remained confused at the entire situation. Hans then added some clear consequences: ?I will take each and every one of your books ? and I will burn them. I?ll throw them in the stove or fireplace. They?ll take you away from me.? After striking severe fear in Liesel, Hans comforted Liesel for a few minutes.
Upon the first true person-to-person encounter between Liesel and Max, the young girl was unsure what to do. After speaking shortly, however, they instantly became good friends and found similarities between their personalities. Their first discussion involved their nightmares ? the images of Liesel losing her little brother, and the images of Max leaving his family. After feeling the soothing relief of sharing his troubles with another person, Max began writing a novel using the ripped-out and painted-over pages of Mein Kampf
. He wrote about his life as a childhood, his struggles growing up, and the new girl he met in the basement of a home on Himmel Street.
One day, going to pick up washing and folding from the mayor?s house, Liesel received a letter from the mayor?s wife addressed to her mother instead of the normal batch of dirty clothing. Upon receiving it, Liesel immediately knew what had happened. In the past few months as the economy declined, Rosa had been gradually losing customers for her washing and folding service. Even the rich families in the area were saving up on their money and doing their own washing and folding, which resulted in Rosa losing all but her last customer, the mayor. The instant Liesel laid her hands on the letter, she insulted the mayor?s wife in her rage. The thought of losing her and Rosa?s last customer made Liesel storm out of the house, wondering what exactly she should say to Rosa when she returned with no clothing.
Suddenly, one day, Max fell asleep and did not wake up. In Liesel?s concern, she could not get her mind off Max and started collecting gifts for him to share about when he woke up. The set of presents included a deflated ball, a ribbon, a pinecone, a button, a stone, a feather, two newspapers, a candy wrapper, a cloud, a toy soldier, a miraculous leaf, a finished whistler, and a slab of grief. After days and days of Max?s unconsciousness, and days of days of reading to him, Liesel broke out in tears. Although Rosa comforted Liesel and told her everything will be all right, she spoke otherwise with Hans. Liesel became deeply worried when she overheard Rosa contemplating what would happen to them if Max never woke up, and what they would do if they had a dead Jew in their basement. Miraculously, while Liesel was at school one day, Max opened his eyes.
A full-blown war was imminent. A reminder of the bad things it would bring came when the Nazi party started going door to door to check for suitable air-raid shelters. Liesel witnessed the Nazis progressing their way down Himmel Street one day when playing a game of soccer. Faking a severe injury to leave the game as soon as possible, Liesel made it to Hans immediately and informed him that the Nazis were coming. Relocating Max from the basement to Liesel?s bedroom, the Hubermanns braced themselves for the longest three minutes of their lives. As the Nazis descended the steps to the basement, Hans, Rosa, and Liesel shivered at the thought of having their basement used as a bomb shelter, wondering what they would do with Max each time the bomb danger siren went off. The Nazis came back up the stairs. The basement wasn?t deep enough. The Hubermanns were safe.
A quote that I particularly liked form this section was spoken by Death in his narration of the story as a side note: ?I?ve seen so many young men over the years who think they?re running at other young men. They are not. They?re running at me.? This quote appealed to me because it captures the essence of soldiers participating in war from a non-human?s, non-participator?s viewpoint. Because it is said by Death, the text of the analysis is not obscured or biased by patriotism, as may be if said by the soldiers. This quote creates some imagery of two large opposing groups of men separated by a black-hole-like being in the center. In the zeal of desire for victory, these young soldiers do not realize that they are not invincible, they are not guaranteed a victory, and they are not in a safe nor secure position. In their zeal, soldiers cannot see the fate that awaits them in the center of the battlefield. For someone not familiar with the antics of war, this quote gives an uncensored description of what war really is ? a blind suicide mission for innocent men with a misconception of their indestructibility.
While reading, I noticed the strong relationship building between Liesel and Max Vandenburg. I believe that this strong bond formed so quickly because both Liesel and Max needed someone close to them in their lives. The book described the miserable pasts of both Liesel and Max: Liesel had lost her brother, and Max had lost his family, including his mother and a close cousin. After meeting each other, Liesel and Max were able to play the roles of the missing important people in each other?s lives. Max could be the brother that Liesel once had, someone that she could tell all her secrets to and talk with regarding all her problems and struggles. Liesel could be the caring mother and cousin Max once lived with; Liesel?s nurturing and loving nature did wonders to Max?s loneliness in the basement. It is this family-like bond that pulled Liesel into sitting by Max?s side when he fell unconscious, ?pulling a lump of salt water from her eye and feeding it onto Max Vandenburg’s face.?
After Liesel?s last day at the mayor?s house, after Liesel?s last trip to pick up washing and folding, and after Liesel?s last moments in the mayor?s wife?s library, she could no longer stand being so far away from the books that she once embraced herself with. In a quest to prove to herself and to Rudy that she was able to steal more than just apples, Liesel climbed through the window of the mayor?s house and into the library. Feeling the books that she was once able to read unconditionally, Liesel grasped one tightly and made her way out the window ? she was stealing what she felt belonged to her. After multiple visits to the library, Liesel noticed something unusual one day. The window to the library was left unlocked, and there was a large, thick book leaning up against the window. Upon its retrieval, Liesel found a note from the mayor?s wife explaining that her attempts at stealth did not succeed, and she was already aware of Liesel?s entrance. She stated that the large book was a dictionary that Liesel could use to look up words from her other books that she did not know. The dictionary was put to use well.
Meanwhile, real war had begun. German was under attack by air raids, and the alert sirens went off multiple times for Himmel Street ordering residents to file accordingly into their proper community shelters. The very first alert was a false alarm, but struck resounding fear in the hearts of many Himmel Street inhabitants. In the last moments before leaving their house, the Hubermanns wished Max fare-well, as he would obviously not be able to join them in the safety of their neighbor?s approved basement. In the longest moment of their lives, the occupants of the shelter listened to Liesel?s soft voice reading one of her books, soothing the mood and relieving the tenseness of the air. Over and over, as Himmel Street took cover bombing after bombing, Liesel helped bring comfort to the dwellers as she continued reading her book, progressing further and further into the plot, while still keeping Max in the corner of her thoughts. During one of the raids, Max found the courage to come out of the basement and take a look outside while everyone else was taking cover. He saw, for the first time since his arrival, the fresh air, and the lights in the sky. Not long afterward, Max left 33 Himmel Street: ?You?ve done enough.?
Occasionally, Liesel was able to witness the marching of the Jews, headed towards concentration camps. Every time the Jews passed, Liesel looked out for her lost friend, hoping he was somewhere in the crowd, and every time the Jews passed, he was nowhere to be seen. One day, Hans decided to offer the passing Jews a small portion of bread and got severely beaten for the act by the Nazi guardsmen. Not long afterward, Hans received his real punishment ? he was finally accepted into the Nazi party, but it was in an unexpected manner. In order to serve and promote the Nazi party, Hans was ordered to fight for the Nazis in war. He was sent off to combat and had no choice as to what to do. To make situations worse, Rudy?s father was also forced to participate.
While at war, Hans had some of the most heart-wrenching experiences. Assigned to a department responsible for uncovering and identifying bodies severely dismembered in attacks, Hans saw the most gruesome facets of war. Back at home, Liesel witnessed the true feelings Rosa had for Hans. Under the insults Rosa hurled at Hans on a daily basis, there was a warm Rosa, a Rosa that missed Hans greatly. Liesel saw her foster mother grasping onto Hans? accordion, engulfed in depression and sadness. Although she may not have shown it, Rosa longed to be with Hans again. During a trip one day, Hans got into an argument with another member of his team. While unexpectedly changing positions in a truck they were riding, a fatal accident occurred, and the man sitting in the seat Hans would have normally occupied was killed. Hans survived with a slight arm injury and was sent back home due to a disability.
The end of the world came one day on a peaceful night. Liesel?s world came crashing down while she was in the basement writing her novel. The sirens had not sounded that night, and Himmel Street was laid to ruins. The sole survivor was Liesel, who had been in her basement, protected and unaware of what had happened. As Liesel breathed in the musty air, she ran from dead body to dead body, unsure what had become of her life. The only people she knew had all been taken from her. As she made her final visit to Rudy?s house, she decided Rudy did deserve that kiss he longed for. Years later, Liesel met up with Rudy?s father, who had been safe from the bombing due to his serving in the military. They continued with his clothing tailoring business, and eventually even received a visit from Max Vandenburg.
As the novel closed, Death describes how he learned of the life of Liesel Meminger. I found the book very unique in the way it uses a very unexpected viewpoint as the narration. Because the storyline is described by a supernatural being?s viewpoint, the reader receives an insight to the plot that normal characters would not be able to provide. After Liesel’s death, she meets with Death and asks him if he read her autobiography. This confrontation was effective because it creates an analogy of television to real life ? Liesel was in a television the entire story, as we were watching her and learning of her past, but she then becomes a real-life being and has a discussion with our narrator, which we have built a personal relationship with while reading the book. The reader sees Liesel as more of a real person instead of just a fictional character after she is extracted from the storyline and given the personality of ?one of us."
Finally, the last line of the book intrigued me. Labeled as ?a last note from your narrator,? Death says, ?I am haunted by humans.? This made me think of how everyone is uncomfortable in foreign situations. Children have nightmares all the time because they think a beast of a different specie ? the closet monster, the under-the-bed monster, the toe-eating monster, etc. ? is hiding in their bedroom, waiting to assault them after they fall asleep. This even happens between races of humans ? immigrants coming to America are inevitably mistreated, and even Americans touring to other countries are inevitably discriminated against. After such a supernatural being as Death stated that he is haunted by humans, a specie that he is far more powerful than, it enforced my views on why people have difficulty adapting to others different from themselves. Humans do not enjoy being placed in situations they are not used to, may it be a different environment or with different people.