Books that Built Us: ‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak
Jul. 2009: I’m lying in the scratchy sheets of a hotel bed in the Grand Oasis, Cancun, Mexico. It’s past midnight, too late for a 10-year-old girl to be awake. I can hear the rustling leaves of the palm trees along the ocean shore, yells of spring-breakers running through the sand and the breathing of my mother sleeping beside me. But I don’t listen to them, really. My world is consumed by the book I hold in front of me, staring back with its dark brown cover of destruction and harsh black lines scrawled on top of the chaos. They read, “The Book Thief.”
I’m not sure who told me to read the “The Book Thief” as a fifth-grader with frizzy black hair tied into a messy ponytail, who’d lost all her baby teeth and confidently labeled herself as a bookworm but knew nothing about death. And very little about Nazi Germany, for that matter. Regardless, here I was on a fun family vacation crying my heart out after frantically flipping over the last page of the novel and realizing that the ending was just as painful as I had dreaded.
For those unfamiliar with the novel, “The Book Thief” follows the story of nine-year-old Liesel Meminger, an orphan taken in by a German couple, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, during the height of Hitler’s reign. Traumatized by the death of her younger brother and shocked at the state of the country, Liesel turns to reading. Stealing books from the mayor’s library becomes a ritual undertaken with her partner-in-crime Rudy Steiner, who falls in love with Leisel within days of meeting her.
Reading is Liesel’s everything: her joy, her sadness, her escape from the crumbling world around her. Crouched in a shelter, Liesel reads to her neighborhood while the bombs fall around them. When Liesel’s foster family safeguards Max, a Jew, in their basement for years, Liesel reads to him. Every time I closed my eyes and thought of Liesel, I saw myself. We were the same age. Had the same curiosity about the world. Wanted everything to be fair and grew frustrated when it wasn’t. But Liesel would experience death. Real, heart wrenching death. My only concern at the time was how I looked in the neon purple one-piece swimsuit I had bought the week before, and why my parents didn’t let me near the water bar when everyone else was allowed to be there.
Spoiler alert: Everyone in “The Book Thief” dies at the end. At least, to my 10-year-old self, everyone that mattered. In fact, the whole novel is narrated by Death, who claims within the first few pages that he will “take us all” in the end. He hints that major characters like Hans and Rosa will be no more by the last page. That Rudy will never get a kiss from Liesel as long as he lives. But I just couldn’t believe it. Death was pushed right in front of my face, narrating Liesel and Rudy’s world, and I wasn’t convinced for a second.
Something had to give eventually, and the final straw came in the form of Rudy’s lifeless body lying on the street after the final air raid. Rudy, the boy whose biggest ambition was to run in the Olympics as fast as Jesse Owens, and painted his body with black paint while running laps around the neighborhood track one night to prove it. I cried for Rudy, Liesel’s other half, the childish antics to her calm composure. I cried because Death had taken Rudy unfairly; he was only really a kid; he was really just like me.
Oct. 2018: nine years later, I’m glad that my inauguration to the idea of death happened the way it did. Liesel and Max, the Jew hidden in the basement, were the only survivors of the bombing on Himmel Street. And let me tell you, I woke the hell up. Ever since that night at Cancun I’ve known that death is sudden, never predictable. It can take people with whole lives ahead of them. Even those that you think could never be affected by it are.
This isn’t meant to be a sob fest. Death is inevitable, but also highly stigmatized. I would love to see a world where death is accepted as a necessary tradeoff for living a beautiful life. Death can be seen warmly as a celebration of living, a memoir of the story of an individual. Liesel and Rudy shared their story with me through ink on soft pages. One day we’ll all have our stories to pass on, too.