Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak's groundbreaking new novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for ...(more)
SOME IMPORTANT INFORMATION
THIS NOVEL IS NARRATED BY DEATH
ARRIVAL ON HIMMEL STREET
That last time.
That red sky ...
How does a book thief end up kneeling and howling and flanked by a man-made heap of ridiculous, greasy, cooked-up rubble?
Years earlier, the start was snow.
The time had come. For one.
A SPECTACULARLY TRAGIC MOMENT
A train was moving quickly.
It was packed with humans.
A six-year-old boy died
in the third carriage.
The book thief and her brother were travelling down towards Munich, where they would soon be given over to foster parents. We now know, of course, that the boy didn't make it.
HOW IT HAPPENED
There was an intense
spurt of coughing.
Almost an inspired spurt.
And soon after - nothing.
When the coughing stopped, there was nothing but the nothingness of life moving on with a shuffle, or a near-silent twitch. A suddenness found its way onto his lips then, which were a corroded brown colour, and peeling, like old paint. In desperate need of redoing.
Their mother was asleep.
I entered the train.
My feet stepped through the cluttered aisle and my palm was over his mouth in an instant.
The train galloped on.
Except the girl.
With one eye open, one still in a dream, the book thief - also known as Liesel Meminger - could see without question that her younger brother Werner was now sideways and dead.
His blue eyes stared at the floor.
Prior to waking up, the book thief had been dreaming about the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler. In the dream, she was attending a rally at which he spoke, looking at the skull-coloured part in his hair and the perfect square of his moustache. She was listening contentedly to the torrent of words that was spilling from his mouth. His sentences glowed in the light. In a quieter moment, he actually crouched down and smiled at her. She returned the gesture and said, 'Guten Tag, Herr Fuhrer. Wie geht's dir heut?' She hadn't learned to speak too well, or even to read, as she had rarely frequented school. The reason for that, she would find out in due course.
Just as the Fuhrer was about to reply, she woke up.
It was January 1939. She was nine years old, soon to be ten.
Her brother was dead.
One eye open.
One still in a dream.
It would be better for a complete dream, I think, but I really have no control over that.
The second eye jumped awake and she caught me out, no doubt about it. It was exactly when I kneeled down and extracted his soul, holding it limply in my swollen arms. He warmed up soon after, but when I picked him up originally, the boy's spirit was soft and cold, like ice-cream. He started melting in my arms. Then warming up completely. Healing.
For Liesel Meminger, there was the imprisoned stiffness of movement, and the staggered onslaught of thoughts. Es stimmt nicht. This isn't happening. This isn't happening.
And the shaking.
Why do they always shake them?
Yes, I know, I know, I assume it has something to do with instinct. To stem the flow of truth. Her heart at that point was slippery and hot, and loud, so loud so loud.
Stupidly, I stayed. I watched.
Next, her mother.
She woke her up with the same distraught shake.
If you can't imagine it, think clumsy silence. Think bits and pieces of floating despair. And drowning in a train.
Snow had been falling consistently and the service to Munich was forced to stop due to faulty track work. There was a woman wailing. A girl stood numbly next to her.
In panic, the mother opened the door.
She climbed down into the snow, holding the small body.
What could the girl do but follow?
As you've been informed, two guards also exited the train. They discussed and argued over what to do. The situation was unsavoury to say the least. It was eventually decided that all three of them should be taken to the next township and left there to sort things out.
This time the train limped through the snowed-in country.
It hobbled in and stopped.
They stepped onto the platform, the body in her mother's arms.
The boy was getting heavy.
Liesel had no idea where she was. All was white, and as they remained at the station, she could only stare at the faded lettering of the sign in front of her. For Liesel, the town was nameless, and it was there that her brother Werner was buried two days later. Witnesses included a priest and two shivering gravediggers.
A pair of train guards.
A pair of gravediggers.
When it came down to it, one
of them called the shots. The
other did what he was told.
The question is, what if the
other is a lot more than one?
Mistakes, mistakes, it's all I seem capable of at times.
For two days I went about my business. I travelled the globe as always, handing souls to the conveyor belt of eternity. I watched them trundle passively on. Several times I warned myself that I should keep a good distance from the burial of Liesel Meminger's brother. I did not heed my advice.
From miles away, as I approached, I could already see the small group of humans standing frigidly amongst the wasteland of snow. The cemetery welcomed me like a friend, and soon, I was with them. I bowed my head.
Standing to Liesel's left, the gravediggers were rubbing their hands together and whingeing about the snow and the current digging conditions. 'So hard getting through all the ice,' and so forth. One of them couldn't have been more than fourteen. An apprentice. When he walked away, a black book fell innocuously from his coat pocket without his knowledge. He'd taken perhaps two dozen steps.
A few minutes later, Liesel's mother started leaving with the priest. She was thanking him for his performance of the ceremony.
The girl, however, stayed.
Her knees entered the ground. Her moment had arrived.
Still in disbelief, she started to dig. He couldn't be dead. He couldn't be dead. He couldn't --
Within seconds, snow was carved into her skin.
Frozen blood was cracked across her hands.
Somewhere in all the snow, she could see her broken heart, in two pieces. Each half was glowing, and beating under all that white. She only realised her mother had come back for her when she felt the boniness of a hand on her shoulder. She was being dragged away. A warm scream filled her throat.
A SMALL IMAGE, PERHAPS TWENTY METRES AWAY
When the dragging was done, the mother
and the girl stood and breathed.
There was something black
and rectangular lodged in the snow.
Only the girl saw it.
She bent down and picked it up
and held it firmly in her fingers.
The book had silver writing on it.
They held hands.
A final, soaking farewell was let go of, and they turned and left, looking back several times.
As for me, I remained a few moments longer.
No-one waved back.
Mother and daughter vacated the cemetery and made their way towards the next train to Munich.
Both were skinny and pale.
Both had sores on their lips.
Liesel noticed it in the dirty, fogged-up window of the train when they boarded just before midday. In the written words of the book thief herself, the journey continued like everything had happened.
When the train pulled into the Bahnhof in Munich, the passengers slid out as if from a torn package. There were people of every stature, but amongst them, the poor were the most easily recognised. The impoverished always try to keep moving, as if relocating might help. They ignore the reality that a new version of the same old problem will be waiting at the end of the trip - the relative you cringe to kiss.
I think her mother knew this quite well. She wasn't delivering her children to the higher echelons of Munich, but a foster home had apparently been found, and if nothing else, the new family could at least feed the girl and the boy a little better, and educate them properly.
Liesel was sure her mother carried the memory of him, slung over her shoulder. She dropped him. She saw his feet and legs and body slap the platform.
How could she walk?
How could she move?
That's the sort of thing I'll never know, or comprehend - what humans are capable of.
She picked him up and continued walking, the girl clinging to her side.
Authorities were met and questions of lateness and the boy raised their vulnerable heads. Liesel remained in the corner of the small, dusty office as her mother sat with clenched thoughts on a very hard chair.
There was the chaos of goodbye.
The girl's head was buried into the woolly, worn shallows of her mother's coat. There had been some more dragging.
Quite a way beyond the outskirts of Munich was a town called Molching, said best by the likes of you and me as Molking. That's where they were taking her, to a street by the name of Himmel.
Himmel = Heaven
Whoever named Himmel Street certainly had a healthy sense of irony. Not that it was a living hell. It wasn't. But it sure as hell wasn't heaven either.
Regardless, Liesel's foster parents were waiting.
They'd been expecting a girl and a boy and would be paid a small allowance for having them. Nobody wanted to be the one to tell Rosa Hubermann that the boy hadn't survived the trip. In fact, no-one ever really wanted to tell her anything. As far as dispositions go, hers wasn't really enviable, although she'd had a good record with foster kids in the past. Apparently, she'd straightened a few out.
For Liesel, it was a ride in a car.
She'd never been in one before.
There was the constant rise and fall of her stomach, and the futile hope that they'd lose the way or change their minds. Amongst it all, her thoughts couldn't help turning towards her mother, back at the Bahnhof, waiting to leave again. Shivering. Bundled up in that useless coat. She'd be eating her nails, waiting for the train. The platform would be long and uncomfortable - a slice of cold cement. Would she keep an eye out for the approximate burial site of her son on the return trip? Or would sleep be too heavy?
The car moved on, with Liesel dreading the last, lethal turn.
The day was grey, the colour of Europe.
Curtains of rain were drawn around the car.
'Nearly there.' The foster care lady, Frau Heinrich, turned and smiled. 'Dein neues Heim. Your new home.'
Liesel made a clear circle on the dribbled glass and looked out.
A PHOTO OF HIMMEL STREET
The buildings appear to be
glued together, mostly small
houses and unit blocks that look
nervous. There is murky snow
spread out like carpet. There
is concrete, empty hatstand
trees, and grey air.
A man was also in the car. He remained with the girl while Frau Heinrich disappeared inside. He never spoke. Liesel assumed he was there to make sure she didn't run away, or to force her inside if she gave them any trouble. Later, however, when the trouble did start, he simply sat there and watched. Perhaps he was only the last resort, the final solution.
After a few minutes, a very tall man came out. Hans Hubermann, Liesel's foster father. On one side of him was the medium height Frau Heinrich. On the other was the squat shape of Rosa Hubermann, who looked like a small wardrobe with a coat thrown over it. There was a distinct waddle to her walk. Almost cute, if it hadn't been for her face, which was like creased-up cardboard, and annoyed, as if she was merely tolerating all of it. Her husband walked straight, with a cigarette smouldering between his fingers. He rolled his own.
The fact was this:
Liesel would not get out of the car.
'Was ist los mit diesem Kind?' Rosa Hubermann enquired. She said it again. 'What's wrong with this child?' She stuck her face inside the car and said, 'Na, komm. Komm.'
The seat in front was flung forward. A corridor of cold light invited her out. She would not move.
Outside, through the circle she'd made, Liesel could see the tall man's fingers, still holding the cigarette. Ash stumbled from its edge and lunged and lifted several times before it hit the ground. Fifteen minutes passed till they were able to coax her from the car. It was the tall man who did it.
There was the gate next, which she clung to.
A gang of tears trudged from her eyes as she held on and refused to go inside. People started to gather on the street, until Rosa Hubermann swore at them, after which they reversed back whence they came.
A TRANSLATION OF ROSA HUBERMANN'S ANNOUNCEMENT
'What are you arseholes looking at?'
Eventually, Liesel Meminger walked gingerly inside. Hans Hubermann had her by one hand. Her small suitcase had her by the other. Buried beneath the folded layer of clothes in that suitcase was a small black book, which, for all we know, a fourteen-year-old gravedigger in a nameless town had probably spent the last few hours looking for. 'I promise you,' I imagine him saying to his boss, 'I have no idea what happened to it. I've looked everywhere. Everywhere!' I'm sure he would never have suspected the girl, and yet, there it was - a black book with silver words written against the ceiling of her clothes.
THE GRAVEDIGGER'S HANDBOOK
A twelve-step guide to
Published by the Bayern Cemetery Association
The book thief had struck for the first time - the beginning of an illustrious career.