The Book Thief
What’s Up With the Ending?
From the beginning of The Book Thief, Death, the narrator, foreshadows the bombing of Himmel Street. This terrible event kills all of Liesel's friends and loved ones. Well, not quite all. One important person left in Liesel's life is Ilsa Hermann, the mayor's wife who gives Liesel access to a whole world of books. Her street isn't bombed, and Ilsa takes Liesel in, briefly, after Himmel Street is demolished. It's a pleasant and poignant surprise to see her reach out to Liesel in her time of need.
But, the real surprise comes after World War II has come to an end, when Max walks through the door of Alex Steiner's tailor shop, looking for Liesel. This happy reunion takes places in the Epilogue. And it's brief. At this point, we've already learned that Liesel dies in Sydney, Australia (Markus Zusak's hometown) after a long, happy life which includes a husband, three kids, and even grandkids. But, Max's story ends when he and Liesel are reunited shortly after the war. Some readers find this really exasperating. Max is such a loveable character and we want to know about the rest of his life.
Other readers wonder if Max is the man Liesel marries and starts a family with. We think the novel does leave open this possibility. Although the age difference (about ten years) makes this scenario potentially problematic, it's easy to see Max and Liesel becoming a couple in the future. It certainly seems like they can't live without each other, but whether this turns to romantic love, we can only wonder.
We also find it intriguing that Max is the only major character whom Death doesn't describe coming for. Death says he came for Liesel "only yesterday" (85.3). Since the novel was first published in 2005, we can assume that yesterday is sometime in or around 2005. Liesel would be about 76 years old, and Max about 86, so it's possible he's still alive at the end of the novel.
But then again, maybe not. At the very end, Death takes Liesel's soul to Anzak Avenue, which is a real place in Australia, but maybe Death means an afterlife version. Anyhow, he takes her there and shows her The Book Thief, her book. We are told, "A few cars drove by, each way. Their drivers were Hitlers and Hubermanns, and Maxes, killers, Dillers, and Steiners…" (88.13). Notice how Death seems to count Max among the dead. This means that Liesel must have suffered from his death, but that everybody will soon be reunited in the afterlife, at least according to Death's rather vague description of it.
Now, let's look at the novel's final lines, spoken of course, by Death: "I'm haunted by humans" (88.17). First, this is a cute pun. Humans are haunted by ghosts, and some might even say by Death. Death being haunted by humans is something to think about. Second, this is how Death answers Liesel when she asks if her memoir, The Book Thief, (which he's finally returning to her) makes sense to him. We take that as a "yes." Like Liesel, Death is haunted by what humans have to go through, what they do to each other, but most of all by their acts of kindness and love.
At the start of the novel Death says that the most painful part of the job is seeing "the survivors," "the leftover humans," "the ones who are left behind, crumbling among the jigsaw puzzle of realization, despair, and surprise" (1.20, 1.21, 1.22). In other words, according to Death, it's easier to be dead than to be alive and deal with the loss of loved ones. Death is haunted by those humans, because he can't forget the suffering they face. In some ways, this is what Liesel's story, The Book Thief, is all about – even though she writes it before she loses Rudy and the Hubermanns. So, in spite of our joy at finding Max alive, the novel ends on a rather melancholy note, as it should, considering that almost all of the characters, and oodles of others die in the story.