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Liesel’s Emotional Journey Through the Book Thief

“It’s just a small story really, about, among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery” (Zusak 5). And of course, there is Death. Set in Nazi Germany during the 1900s, The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, is told in the first-person point of view of Death as he narrates the unforgettable story of Liesel Meminger. Liesel is a young German girl who faces the inevitable pains of growing up in a time of war. Her emotional journey is one that begins with a journey. It is to thirty-three Himmel Street, Molching where a new life awaits her. Naturally, everyone changes in some way during an emotional journey, and Liesel is no different. There are three main components in Liesel’s emotional journey that will change her significantly; friendships, deaths, and words.

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When Liesel first arrives at her new foster parents’ home on thirty-three Himmel Street, she is friendless, desolate, and possesses only a small suitcase and a stolen book. “Liesel knew that.{…} No matter how many times she was told that she was loved, there was no recognition that the proof was in the abandonment. Nothing changed the fact that she was a lost, skinny child in another foreign place, with more foreign people. Alone” (Zusak 32). In spite of this, it is not before long that Liesel begins to accept her new surroundings and make some new friends. From the start, Liesel is immediately loved by Hans and Rosa Hubermann, though they both showcase it in a queer way. For Rosa, it involves bashing Liesel with a wooden spoon and words at various intervals. For Hans, it was the act of not leaving. And not surprisingly, Liesel immediately grows close to her new father. “{…}she imagined the smell of it, mapped out on her papa’s clothes. More than anything, it was the smell of friendship{…}.”(Zusak 72).

Hans Hubermann was a painter by trade, an accordionist by heart, and most importantly, he was a honest and moral man. “In 1933, 90 percent of Germans showed unflinching support for Adolf Hitler. That leaves 10 percent who didn’t. Hans Hubermann belonged to the 10 percent. There was a reason for that” (Zusak 63). That is, a Jew had once saved his life and he couldn’t forget that. Namely, it was a man named Erik Vandenburg who had a son, Max, before he died. And as the terrorization of Jews grew turbulently worse, Max’s only hope became the aid of the Hubermanns. During the period of time that he hid in the Hubermann’s home, Max and Liesel became friends. Although one was a Jewish fist fighter and one was a German book thief, Max and Liesel soon saw that they had things in common. “Liesel, in the act of watching, was already noticing the similarities between this stranger and herself. They both arrived in a state of agitation on Himmel Street. They both nightmared ”(Zusak 206). In addition, they are both victims of Hitler’s hate, for Liesel’s parents were communists, and they both had a loving respect for words. Nonetheless, Liesel’s greatest friend is Rudy Steiner, her neighbor, partner in crime, and ultimately, her lover. “Rudy was always destined to be Liesel’s best friend. A snowball in the face is surely the perfect beginning to a lasting friendship” (Zusak 48).

Through the friendships of Hans Hubermann, Max Vandenburg, and Rudy Steiner, Liesel changes remarkably. Each of these people taps into Liesel’s emotions and affects her outlook on the world. Hans shows Liesel that it takes courage to stand up for something you believe in, knowing there are consequences. Max made Liesel empathetic towards people in need and gave her life purpose because he helped her understand the power of words. Lastly, Rudy shows her what true companionship and love is. On the whole, they each gave vital knowledge that changes her for the better.

Another component that impacts Liesel considerably is death, especially the deaths of her family and friends. With Death as the narrator and World War II in the background, it is very apparent that death is a central theme in the novel. The constant threat and fear of death, as well as the reality of it, was ubiquitous during that time; and accordingly, the omnipresence of death is also present in the novel. From the very beginning of the book, there is foreshadowing from our narrator that Liesel’s life will hold a great amount of adversity and loss. “I was just about to leave when I found her kneeling there. A mountain range of rubble was written, designed, erected around her.{…}I wanted to stop. To crouch down. I wanted to say: “I’m sorry, child”’(Zusak 12-13). The mountain of rubble around Liesel symbolizes that she has many obstacles to overcome. In other words, Liesel “was a girl with a mountain to climb”(Zusak 86). One of the main obstacles Liesel has to overcome in the novel is the deaths of loved ones. “Certainly, war meant dying, but it always shifted the ground beneath a person’s feet when it was someone who had once lived and breathed in close proximity” (Zusak 467).

The first death Liesel experiences is of her younger brother, Werner, as they were sitting on the train to their new foster parents’ home in Molching. The unexpected death leaves Liesel broken and nightmared for a significant amount of time and it causes her to lose some of her childhood innocence. Simply put, for the first time, Liesel is exposed to the painful and harsh realities of life. Then, later on, Hans Hubermann is accepted into the Nazi Party on the most unlikely terms. However, it is soon followed by a letter that states he is being drafted into the German army. Five days later, Alex Steiner, Rudy’s father, finds out that he is also being sent to war as a punishment for refusing to let Rudy attend a school that trains boys to become Nazis. “‘When they come and ask you for one of your children,’ Barbara Steiner explained, to no one in particular, ‘you’re supposed to say yes’” (Zusak 419).

Luckily, neither Hans Hubermann nor Alex Steiner were sent to fight. Alex was sent to Austria were he mended uniforms, socks, shirts that needed mending. Whereas Hans was sent to Stuttgart, and later, to Essen, where he was given one of the most undesirable positions on the home front? the LSE, otherwise known as Dead Body Collectors. Then one day in mid-February, Liesel and Rosa receive a letter from their Papa saying that he was coming home because of a broken leg. For a while, they rejoice. Papa comes home and all is well until October 7th; the day Himmel Street is bombarded and flattened to the ground. That day, the sirens and the cuckoo shrieks in the radio was too late. “Only one person survived. She survived because she was sitting in a basement reading through the story of her own life, checking for mistakes”(Zusak 498).

When Liesel is rescued, she is desperate and overcome with grief at the deaths of her family and friends, especially of her foster parents and the Steiner family. This is the point where she experiences a major loss of innocence which causes her to grow up. She realizes that it is all based on fate. Why should one person die and not the other? Why him and not me? The answer is simple. “No one expects these things. They don’t plan them” (Zusak 525). Later, when Alex Steiner made it home, he was whittled away with regret for not letting Rudy attend the school. “You save someone. You kill them. How was he supposed to know?”(Zusak 547). So, from the deaths of those dear to her, Liesel thoughts mature substantially and she realizes that death is solely in the hands of fate.

Finally, words are a crucial factor that causes Liesel to change in her emotional journey. Liesel is known as the book thief for a reason. That is, she has an obsession with stealing books and the first book she steals, The Grave Digger’s Handbook, was stolen before she could even read. Despite her inability to read, however, Liesel is determined. One night, Liesel has a bed-wetting accident and as Hans reaches under to pull the sheets off, he discovers her stolen book and asks her if she wanted to read it. From that point onward, Papa teaches Liesel to read every night, one letter at a time, until eventually, she understands the meaning of words. The second time that Liesel steals a book is when she takes The Shoulder Shrug from a bonfire on Hitler’s birthday. “When she looked back, Liesel was not ashamed to have stolen it. On the contrary, it was pride that more resembled that small pool of felt something in her stomach. And it was anger and dark hatred that her fueled her desire to steal it.{…}What was there to be angry about? In short, the answer traveled from Himmel Street, to the Fuhrer, to the unfindable location of her real mother, and back again”(Zusak 84). In other words, Liesel steals The Shoulder Shrug as her way of getting back at Hitler for stealing her parents. Hitler’s act of thievery was what caused the anger and dark hatred that fueled her desire to steal.

The next book Liesel steals is The Whistler from Ilsa Hermann’s library. Now, Rosa Hubermann happens to do the washing and ironing for some of the rich folks in town, including Ilsa and her husband who is the mayor. However, as the times grew harder, Rosa began summoning Liesel to pick up and deliver the laundry in hopes that her clients will be less likely to fire her with a skinny, pale girl standing in front of them. Regardless, one customer after another dismiss their services until Ilsa Hermann becomes the last customer. Then, when Ilsa disemploys them too, Liesel feels immense anger and for the first time, she realizes how powerful words really are. “‘You and your husband. Sitting up here.’ Now she became spiteful. More spiteful and evil than she thought herself capable. The injury of words. Yes, the brutality of words. She summoned them from someplace she only now recognized and hurled them at Ilsa Hermann. ‘It’s about time,’ she informed her, ‘that you do your own stinking washing anyway. It’s about time you faced the fact that your son is dead{…}.’” (Zusak 263). “Liesel could see it on her face.{…}Cuts had opened up and a series of wounds were rising to the surface of her skin. All from the words. From Liesel’s words” (Zusak 263).

Later, Liesel goes back with Rudy and steals The Whistler from her library as an act of revenge. Similar to The Shoulder Shrug, Liesel does it as a way of taking back something that had been taken from her, namely her weekly access to Ilsa’s library. At any rate, not all the words Liesel had were stolen. One Christmas, after Max had left the Hubermann household, for it was no longer a safe hiding place, and Hans was off at war, Rosa decided Liesel was ready and that it was time to give her Max’s present, The Word Shaker. From The Word Shaker, Liesel learns that words are what holds the country under the power of Hitler and the Nazi Party. She concludes that the world did not deserve the beauty of words. “She tore a page from the book and ripped it in half. Then a chapter. Soon, there was nothing but scraps of words littered between her legs and all around her. The words. Why did they have to exist? Without words, the Fuhrer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or wordly tricks to make us feel better. What good were the words?” (Zusak 521).

After ripping up the book in Ilsa’s library, Liesel began to feel guilty and she writes a letter to Ilsa indicating she will no longer steal from her library. As a result, Ilsa gives Liesel a journal where she is able to write her own stories. This little act of kindness ends up saving Liesel’s life because on the night of the bombing, Liesel was in the basement editing her story. Through the emotional journey that involved words, Liesel comes to see the beauty and brutality of words and how something beautiful could be manipulated to become something brutal. So, her perception of words have changed considerably and through it all, Liesel has come to understand the power of words better.

In brief, Liesel’s life is shaped by three intertwined things; friendships, deaths and words. Each of these things exerted influence over the way Liesel saw the world and dealt with the difficult circumstances she faced. Through her emotional journey, she changes in countless ways. She changes in the way she views the world, the people around her, and the things that surround her. Above all, she has matured and grown to be an able young women. This is the coming-of-age story of a young girl who was able to survive poverty, death, and war. Even though she has seen the ugly things that life can bring, she is strong enough to survive and keep her love towards others true.

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