Liesel Meminger in The Book Thief
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Klepto With A Cause
Liesel Meminger is the hardworking, book-thieving, kind-hearted star of the novel. She loves books so much, she steals them... even before she knows how to read. That's dedication, folks.
Like many of us, Liesel doesn't have an easy time reading, at least not at first. In fact, without her foster father Hans (who, with his fourth-grade education, doesn't read so well himself) and his dedication to teaching her, she might never have learned to read at all. At school, her lack of education is, at first, mistaken for lack of intelligence.
So why hasn't Liesel, at ten years old, gotten any education? Well, the answer is a little murky, just like Liesel's past and family history. But, it definitely has to do with Liesel's father's communist affiliations. The German Communist Party (KPD) was a popular political party in Germany when Hitler took power. As such, the Nazis saw communists as a threat.
Likely, Liesel's father in some way voiced his opposition to the Nazi Party and was arrested shortly after the Nazis took power in 1933. His family was probably left with no money, no way to make money, no medical treatment, and no home. Liesel remembers a series of boarding houses and blurry institutional settings. Whatever the precise situation, education is simply not available. Although we don't have the details for a full analysis, we can see an important main point—be careful not to mistake lack of education for lack of intelligence.
Now, we have a question for you. If you had to pick ten books to help tell the story of your life (or at least four years of it) what would they be? This question isn't hard for Liesel Meminger. As you probably already know, Death tells her story in ten sections, each one given the title of a book or story. According to Death, Liesel's book, The Book Thief, is divided in this way as well. So, we think a good way to analyze Liesel's character. We'll look at how she grows and changes between 1939 and 1943 by looking at what each of the books mean to her.
The Gravedigger's Handbook
This book is just what it sounds like: a handbook for digging graves. It's the first book Liesel steals and the first book she reads. As with all her books, this one is totally bittersweet.
It's bitter for obvious reasons—she steals the book from the snowy graveyard where her little brother Werner has just been buried. It's her only tangible memento of her brother, and also of her mother, whom she never sees again after that January day in 1939. So, for the Liesel, the book represents great loss, great sorrow, and her feelings of abandonment. It represents the end of one phase of her life, and the beginning of another.
The Gravedigger's Handbook also has some very positive associations for Liesel and marks her transformation from illiterate to literate. It also represents Hans and the beginning of Liesel's loving relationship with him. Liesel has nightmares about her brother dying almost every night, but the night Hans finds The Grave Digger's Handbook she has the additional embarrassment of wetting the bed.
Hans doesn't just make this difficult situation easier by comforting her and changing her sheets. He turns it into a life changing opportunity for them both. His discovery of the book, hidden beneath her mattress, inspires all their reading and writing lessons. So, while The Gravedigger's Handbook represents great sadness and loss, it also represents great friendship and learning to read... which is one of the most thrilling things that happens to Liesel.
The Grave Digger's Handbook also helps establish Liesel as "The Heavyweight Champion of the School Yard" (12.Title)... which isn't necessarily a good thing. She recites a passage from the book in class when she isn't able to read the assigned material. Oops.
Poor Liesel gets teased, of course. Then she becomes a bully for a few moments. She even turns her wrath on innocent Tommy Müller, in addition to the boy who teases her (Ludwig Shmeikl). In fact, she almost kills Ludwig. Walking home with Rudy afterwards, Liesel admits that her reaction was driven by all the suffering, humiliation, and loss she's been experiencing (especially by the loss of her brother, Werner). This realization helps her to not fall into violent and bullying ways—which would be easy to do in an atmosphere where violence and bullying are the norm.
The Shoulder Shrug
We don't know much about the actual contents of The Shoulder Shrug, Liesel's second stolen book, other than that it features a Jewish protagonist. This is why the novel is sentenced to burn in Hitler's birthday book burning in Molching. Somehow, this book is too strong, or too wet, or too lucky to burn up quickly. It's only smoldering when Liesel steals it.
The timing is important here. Liesel steals it from the bonfire after getting confirmation from Hans that Hitler is likely behind the disappearance of her parents—not to mention the poverty that led to Werner's death. Stealing the book is a way for her get revenge on her new sworn enemy, Adolf Hitler. Sure she wants a book to read, but she also wants to take back some of what Hitler is destroying. Pretty heady stuff for an eleven-year-old (she's eleven now).
Stealing The Shoulder Shrug also opens the doors to a whole word of books. If Ilsa Hermann, the mayor's wife, hadn't seen Liesel steal the book from the fire, she might never have invited Liesel into her library. Liesel might have been hard-up for books. Books aside, Liesel's relationship with Ilsa is complicated, but, we have to say, the woman proves to be a true friend.
Most importantly, perhaps, Liesel's theft of The Shoulder Shrug "inspire[s] Hans Hubermann to come up with a plan to help the Jewish fist fighter" (13.5). That Jewish fist fighter is Max. Liesel's very special friendship with Max comes to define her in many ways. It certainly makes her a sympathetic character, but more importantly, it helps her see the difference between right and wrong.
Mein Kampf, The Standover Man, and The Word Shaker
[Hans Junior:] "What trash is this girl reading? She should be reading Mein Kampf." (17.31)
[…] in a way, she's stealing the words back, and she's rewriting her own beautiful story through this ugly world that surrounds her. – Markus Zusak (Source)
Mein Kampf (My Struggle) is Adolph Hitler's infamous book. He began dictating it to fellow prisoner Rudolph Hess (Hitler's Deputy) in 1923 when they were in Landsberg prison after a failed attempt to overthrow the Weimar Republic. For a detailed discussion of the book, click here.
Liesel neither reads nor steals this book, but it's incredibly important to who she is. For one thing, she's living inside it, so to speak. Hitler has made his words come to life, and they shape Liesel's reality. Second, when Liesel is reading The Shoulder Shrug in Hans Junior's presence, he speaks the lines quoted above (even though he doesn't know it's a rescued book about a Jew).
This is what gives Hans Senior the idea to use Mein Kampf to help Max. He realizes that Hitler's book can be used as a shield, a disguise; it can be used for the exact opposite of its intended purpose. Holding Mein Kampf in his hand is the best way for Max to deflect suspicion.
So, for Liesel, this book definitely means Max, and Max's life... but it also goes deeper than that. Max hits on the idea of painting the pages of Hitler's book white and using the pages to write The Standover Man and The Word Shaker. Liesel learns that kind words can be used to combat hateful ones. These two books are about friendship and the power of words to make a difference. Although this knowledge doesn't keep her family and friends on Himmel Street from dying in bomb blasts, it pushes Liesel to act as courageously as she can.
These three books also point to the development of Liesel's secret life during most of her time on Himmel Street. The fact that she was able to keep these books—and Max—a secret (until she finally tells Rudy, after Max has been captured) is a testament to her courage and strength.
The Word Shaker also alludes to Liesel's own calling: shaking words. She shakes them from books, from her own lips, and from the lips of others. It reminds her to plant and shake words of friendship and love, especially where hate is thriving.
The Whistler, a book about a murderer on the run from the police, is important to Liesel's character in several ways. This is the book she's been reading in Ilsa's library when Ilsa breaks the news that she can no longer pay Rosa to do her laundry. She's the last customer they have, and Liesel is furious.
We see a super angry side of Liesel come out. She uses words against Ilsa and refuses to take The Whistler when it's offered. This marks another change in her life. She'll no longer enter Ilsa's library through the door. Instead, she'll start coming through the window to steal the books.
The Whistler is the first book she steals from Ilsa. In part, she steals it for Rudy, even though he would have preferred something edible. In general, we see this book as connected with Rudy and Liesel's relationship. For most of the book, they have a close friendship. (Though it seems like Rudy is in love with Liesel, whereas Liesel isn't so sure.)
When Rudy victoriously rescues The Whistler from the Amper River, where it's been thrown by Viktor Chemmel (leader #2 of the fruit stealing gang), he shows Liesel his love for her. Death tells us,
He must have loved her so incredibly hard. So hard that he would never ask for her lips again and would go to his grave without them. (44.42)
As the end nears, Liesel's feelings for Rudy do grow stronger, but Rudy is killed before we can see whether she'll act on them. In bitter irony, Liesel finally kisses Rudy when he's dead. This stamps something painful on her character— regret. It's not the first or the last time she'll feel it, but probably one of the most intense.
The Whistler is also the first book Liesel reads to the residents of Himmel Street to the bomb shelters. These public readings help Liesel see that her passion can be used to help those around her on a large scale.
The Dream Carrier
The Dream Carrier, a book about "an abandoned child who wants to be a priest" (48.51), is another one of the books Liesel (now thirteen) steals from Ilsa Hermann's library. Even though Rudy's with her when she steals it, it's more closely associated with Liesel's relationship with Max.
She steals this book in 1942 when Max is gravely ill and in a coma. For obvious reasons, no doctor can be called, and Liesel offers the only cures she knows—prayer, gift-giving and reading to him from The Dream Carrier. The combination of reading The Dream Carrier and spending all her free time with the comatose Max changes Liesel's dreams. One night, Max's face and body take the place of her brother Werner's in her recurring nightmare.
All of this points to her increasing sensitivity and ability to draw parallels between seemingly disparate situations, like a six year old boy dying on a train and the comatose young man before her. She's also feeling a deep burden of guilt. By bringing snow to the sub-zero basement-bound Max, she contributes to his current state of illness. But, as his writings and words later show her, the gift of snow was worth it. Perhaps, just perhaps, Max's comatose state is a relief from his own guilt and suffering... giving his body a chance to heal a little.
The Dream Carrier also alludes to the fact that Liesel has been having the same nightmare (of her brother dying on the train) every night for over two years. She's literally carrying the moment with her in her dreams. A year later, when she's able to stop carrying him in her nightmares, and instead carry him in her heart, we can see her reaching deeper levels of psychological maturity in spite of her trauma.
The Complete Duden Dictionary and Thesaurus
This invaluable reference book is a gift to Liesel from Ilsa Herman. It marks an important phase in their relationship. Ilsa leaves it in the window of the library for Liesel to "steal." Liesel sees Ilsa watching from inside the library as she takes it, and the two share an awkward wave. This opens the window for a future friendship between them and a healing of the old wounds they've inflicted on each other.
Now, you might have asked yourself, "Why are we given all those definitions from the dictionary in a part of the story that happens before Ilsa gives Liesel the dictionary?" Well, Death is telling us the story the day after Liesel's death, and he's using her book as a reference. When Liesel begins writing her book, she already has the dictionary. She's using it while she writes one of the most difficult parts of her story—the part where Hans gives bread to a Jewish prisoner who is being marched to the nearby concentration camp, Dachau.
The reason this is painful for her to write about is because the incident leads to a) the Jewish man and Hans being whipped on the street; b) Max fleeing the house on Himmel Street; and c) Hans being conscripted into the military. Meaning, it leads to Liesel losing two of the most important people in her life. When Liesel is writing, Hans is back home, but Liesel doesn't know if Max is alive.
The use of the dictionary definitions in this section highlight the fact that Liesel is searching, anguishing over the right words to use in telling this most painful part of her story. As you'll notice, sometimes the words and the definitions fail. When Max leaves the house, there is "Schweigen—Silence" (59.11), which the dictionary defines as "The absence of sound or noise" (59.11).
Fair enough, but it's with the "Related words: […] calmness, peace" (59.11) that Liesel runs into a problem. Again, we see her awareness of words and their nuances sharpening as her character deepens and becomes more defined. So, in addition to a gesture of friendship, Ilsa Herman is giving Liesel tools to pursue her calling as a word shaker when she gives her the dictionary.
The Last Human Stranger
There were people everywhere on the city street, but the stranger could not have been more alone if he were empty. (72.14)
That's a quote from The Last Human Stranger. We don't know much more about it other than that it's the last book that Liesel steals from the mayor's library. Of course, the title and the quote do tell us plenty. They sum up how Liesel is feeling as the number of days since Max left pile up, and as she finally lets go of the nightmare of Werner. She's frustrated with her world and is having trouble keeping up hope. We also see allusions to Hans, Rudy, and Liesel giving bread to Jewish prisoners marching to Dachau. Each Jewish person walking is a stranger—surrounded by people but all alone.
Similarly, people publicly resisting—even with something as small as a crust of bread—are strangers in a crowd of indifference. Being strange in this context means being alone, being lonely, being alienated, being hungry and cold, as so many people are during these times. But, being strange also means looking for unusual ways to cope in the strange world.
But what does it mean to be the last human stranger? We think it could mean a few things. First a hopeful one—once the last human stranger is no longer strange, no human will be strange to any other human. But there's another way you could look at it. Assuming that all humans are strangers, when the last human stranger is dead, there will be no more humans.
Put another way, if Hitler succeeded in killing all the people on his current strange list, he would make another list, and then another, until nobody's left. The complexity of this book's title alone alludes to the growing complexity of Liesel's way of looking at and living in the world, in addition her loneliness and alienation.
It almost always conjures images of Max. The book prepares her to make contact with him, at all costs, when she sees him marching to Dachau after being captured by the Nazis. In that scene, we see Liesel risk her life when she tries to follow him. This is a complicated moment for her. On the one hand, she's being brave and making a stand against injustice. On the other hand, her behavior could have cost her and Max their lives. Luckily, Rudy intervenes. The irony here, of course, is that Max survives the war and Rudy does not.
The Book Thief
The Book Thief is the name of the book Liesel writes over the period leading up to the bombing of Himmel Street. It's the book Death rescues from the garbage and returns to Liesel when she dies. It's the book that literally saves her life.
If she hadn't been editing it in the basement on the night of the Himmel Street bombing, she would have died along with everybody else. The concentration Liesel summons points again to her strength of character. Her ability to find a positive outlet for her emotions also says a lot about her. Of course, she didn't just decide to write a book all on her own. She has a little help from Ilsa Hermann. This points to the irony of the title.
Ilsa gives her the blank book after Liesel has given up book thievery and books in general. Though we're sure she reads again, her book marks her graduation from reader to serious author. What we want to know is if Liesel writes more books when she grows up—and if not, why.
Liesel Meminger in The Book Thief Study Group
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