With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, Liesel learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids, as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.
First of all, I have to thank my sister in law for giving me this book. It was for Christmas, and she made sure I knew that it is her very favorite, and she hoped that I would share it with many people and that it's cover would be cracked on many occasions.
What better occasion do I have to share it with many people than discussing it in a book club?
Well, I was pleasantly engulfed in this book, and I simply couldn't put it down, despite my children and their need of me every second of every day.
First of all, I was surprised at Death's narration, and at first, I was a little unnerved. However, I soon discovered that Death was kind. Especially given the circumstances of the book (World War II set in Nazi Germany) He talks about how he scoops up humans and cradles them in his arms, and he sees their colors in the sky, and the good or bad of the souls. We know from the very beginning that Death can not seem to avoid Liesel Meminger. Each time he encounters her, he lingers just a little too long, and she enchants him. We know from the start that she is a Sole Survivor, and that everyone she knows dies.
First, there is her brother. Then Rudy, her would-be boyfriend. Last, her foster father and mother, Hans and Rosa Hubermann.
To be honest, when i read this book, I wasn't planning a book club. I wasn't planning questions to ask and I wasn't looking at metaphors. More than anything- more than writing a summery or answering questions, I really just want to talk about what I loved, and about my feelings about the book. (I PROMISE that I will be more organized for the next book, and that I will have more of a traditional book club format for this, but this time, I wasn't really prepared.)
What I did notice throughout the book was how human things were. I was awed and inspired by the accuracy of the children portrayed in this novel. I loved the relationships Liesel had, with her foster mother, her best friend Rudy, the mayors wife, the Jewish man hidden in her basement, and most of all, her foster father, Hans Hubermann.
Liesel- The main character. Through her eyes, we see the pain and desolation of Nazi Germany, but we also see hope, the small slivers of happiness and human drive to survive. All the relationships are hers, and we can see how her soul is strengthened and blessed, and sometimes weighed down by those she loves. Liesel has a kind spirit, despite her criminal impulse to steal books (among other things, like produce from local farms) When the bombs come, Liesel uses her most prized possessions (her books) to calm the terrified hearts of her friends and neighbors in the basement shelter. Liesel steals books because, to her, it's like 'taking something back', like, being able to have something that belonged to her in right.
Rudy- Probably my very favorite character. Rudy is Liesel's first friend on Himmel Street. He is her best friend, her cohort, her protector, and her would-be boyfriend, though Liesel never kisses him until he is dead. Rudy is always fighting for the underdog. He, also, has a tender soul and cannot stand to see unfairness in the works. On many occasions, he stands up for Liesel, and in his Hitler Youth classes, he takes a lot of heat for fighting against the youth leader, who continually abuses one of the boys in the group, who cannot hear well because of constant ear infections. Rudy also had a competitive streak. Upon winning 3 of 4 races in a Hitler Youth Field day, men come to take him to a camp to learn to become a soldier. His parents turn them down, and as a result, his father, a tailor, is sent away to assist the Nazi soldiers on the front lines by mending their uniforms. Rudy's father later blames himself for Rudy's death, because if he had just let him go be a soldier, he wouldn't have been on Himmel Street when it was bombed, and he might not have died.
Rosa Hubermann- Rosa is Liesel's foster mother, "mama" and on all occasions calls her 'dirty pig', and makes her collect and deliver the laundry from the more wealthy people of the town, which she does for a little money on the side. Rosa is a harsh woman, but she loves Leisel dearly in her own way, and we soon learn that she calls everyone "dirty pig"- especially those she loves, which includes her husband.
Hans Hubermann- I cannot help but feel that this story was as much his as it was Liesel's. I believe he was the kindest man in the story, and that his soul was good and clean. When Liesel first arrives at their home, having left her 6 year old brother in a grave along the way, it is Hans "papa" who calms her and helps her feel comfort. He holds her each night, when she wakes with her nightmares, and he teaches Liesel how to read through patience and long nights in their shallow basement. Hans is complicated. (Death does not address his complexity in order, but i will for the sake of organization.)
Hans fought in World War I with a Jewish man who taught him how to play his accordion. He became a best friend to Hans, and once, his friend made it possible for him to stay behind in the camp from the fight to write letters for their superior. His friend died in his place, along with the entire division, when they were bombed. Upon delivering his friend's accordion to his young wife, he meets her then 4-year old son named Max, and he tells the woman that if she should ever need help, that she can always count on him.
Liesel's father has 2 children. One is a girl, and is pretty much inconsequential to the book. But his son is a full blown Nazi, and early on in the book, he walks out of the house, never to return because Hans has not yet been accepted into the Nazi party because of "mistakes" he makes when he paints over slurs on the door of a Jewish friend's door.
Not long after Liesel arrives at the Hubermann's home, a Jewish man arrives at the doorstep and begins hiding in their basement. He is the now 24 year old son of Han's war friend, hiding from the Nazis. Liesel soon becomes good friends with Max, and they share many touching moments as they compare nightmares, and Max writes books for her on painted pages of Hitler's book "Mien Kampf"
Han's true compassion is revealed in completion when Nazis march ankle-chained Jews through Himmel Street, and an elderly man continually stumbles and falls to the ground. Hanz, unable to stand the sight of it, takes a part of a loaf of bread and helps the man up, giving him the bread to eat. He and the old man are whipped, and a few Nazi supporters on Himmel Street spit on his door, and and call him racial slurs. That night, Max has to leave for fear that the Nazis will come looking because of what Hans did. They don't come, but Hans is 'accepted' into the Nazi party, and sent on a suicide mission (cleaning up during and after air raids) for the war.
When Hans dies in his sleep during an unannounced bombing raid, (along with everyone else on Himmel Street except for Liesel) Death says that his soul was sitting up, and that good souls like his always sit up. They have lived full, good lives. Liesel's soul does the same.
Max- Max is a Jew. And he is hiding. He has a special (not romantic- more of an older brother type) relationship with Liesel. They are confidants, and friends. Max has a lot of guilt about being the one to survive when his mother and aunts and uncles, including his infantile cousins, were not spared.
Later on, after Max is gone, Liesel and Rudy take bread crumbs and hide in the trees outside of Himmel Street while the Nazis march the Jews through the town. They throw them out onto the street and the Jews are able to scoop them up as they walk. They get caught, and Leisel gets kicked, but they escape.
After Max is gone, whenever the Jews are marched through the streets, Liesel walks along side them, searching their faces for Max until she is shoved back to the edge of the road. Once, she does find him, and they both cry and hold each other, touching faces and holding hands until the Nazis whip her and Rudy has to drag her home.
Throughout the book, we meet many neighbors, both truly Nazi, and those who are just scared. There are is an old woman who has one son who dies at war, and another who kills himself because he feels guilty for wanting to live when he knows he should want to die because of what he has seen.
We meet Ilsa Hermann, the Mayor's wife, who lets Leisel read in her library every week when she picks up the laundry until she disappoints her because they can no longer pay for their laundry to be done, and Liesel starts stealing her books through the large window that Ilsa leaves open at all times. She does this so that her house will always remain cold because she had a son who froze to death in his youth. It's her way of punishing herself.
We meet other children, both kind and mean spirited.
I think that the thing that got to me the most about this book is the misery. When we hear about the Holocaust, we always hear about the Jews, and the showers, and the camps and the nakedness, the suffering, and the terror.
I remember once, there was an authentic Holocaust photography exhibit that came to my college campus and was up for about 3 months. I was like a moth to a flame, and went every day. It felt like hallowed ground, like treading softly would somehow show them the respect they died without.
The point is, the Holocaust was awful, and shocking, especially for the Jewish people. But what is almost always overlooked is that it was awful and shocking for everyone. Even the blonde haired, blue eyed Hitler Youth, and the Nazi Party, and the Christians. Everyone was terrified. Everyone was hungry and cold while they waited on heat, light, and food rations. Everyone was hiding from something. The Germans were scared. They were scared for their children, and their own lives. Everyone suffered and NO ONE escaped.
This book was excellently written. I have not read any of Markus Zusak's other books, but I give this book 5 stars. It is literary genious. It was eye opening and surprising.