I am haunted by humans.
I first read The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak several years ago. At the time, no one had heard of it, but I read it and immediately passed it to all my book-loving friends. (Thank goodness for those.) Of course, I know most of you have read and reviewed this amazing book set in Nazi Germany that shows the overwhelming beauty and brutality of humanity, but I wanted to bring it up again A. because it’s such a phenomenal book that doesn’t ever leave you and B. I taught it to my college freshman and high school seniors the last two weeks.
It is difficult to teach a novel to college students. First, I have two different type of classes – classes that meet three times a week for 50 minutes and classes that meet twice a week for an hour and 15 minutes. I know it’s the same time, but the breakup of that time can sometimes be difficult to deal with. Second, some novels lend themselves well to teaching: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is episodic. Others you can split up easily in terms of theme. Although The Book Thief certainly has many themes, I was still having difficulty. I looked online, but there seem to be mostly resources for younger grades or high school. College is so different.
I framed the conversation in terms of narrator, first of all, because, well…. narrator. It’s Death. I showed some clips of Meet Joe Black on the recommendation of another professor to really illustrate the detachment and curiosity that Brad Pitt’s character, as Death, feels. We related that back to our novel. We also discussed how setting the novel in Nazi Germany could have been a dangerous move for Zusak had he not had an impartial narrator, such as Death. My students were very interested in Death. On some level, I think it bothered them to have to think of little “d” death, but on the other hand, they were really gripped by capital “D” Death’s storytelling.
Then the last several classes, we discussed that more than anything, more than the Holocaust, or Nazi Germany, or destroyed innocence, the book is about words and about the characters’ relationship to those words. Liesel first steals a book before she can even read the words it holds, and we discussed that her stealing begins, at least, as an act of reclamation, filling the void with some physical evidence of what is missing.
However, as Hans teaches her to read, painting words she knows on the walls of the basement, she begins to have a hunger for what those words enable her to do. Similarly, Max, the Jewish refugee the Hubermanns hide in the basement, also has a growing relationship with words. He carries around a copy of Mein Kampf, and when Liesel asks him if it’s a good book, he responds it’s the “best book” because it literally saves his life on the journey to Molching. However, and for good reason, he also hates the book, representative of the evil that caused his life to be in danger in the first place. He rips out the pages and repurposes them, claiming the pages for himself and his own story, instead of Hitler’s.
I asked students for the moments in the book where words stood out to them, and they came up with the books within the book, Standover Man and The Word Shaker, the latter written by Max for Liesel, which describes Hitler’s realization of his own power:
He’d seen a mother walking with her child. At one point, she admonished the small boy, until finally, he began to cry. Within a few minutes, she spoke very softly to him, after which he was soothed and even smiled.
The young man rushed to the woman and embraced her. “Words!” He grinned.
The Word Shaker goes on to say that Hitler plants symbols and words of hate that multiply into a forest of hatred and “farmed thoughts.” One day, the word shaker plants a different kind of seed, and the story ends with hope.
Zusak shows how beautiful words can be. Max asks Liesel:
“Could you go up and tell me how the weather looks?”
Naturally, Liesel hurried up the stairs. She stood a few feet from the spit-stained door and turned on the spot, observing the sky.
When she returned to the basement, she told him.
“The sky is blue today, Max, and there is a big long cloud, and it’s stretched out, like a rope. At the end of it, the sun is like a yellow hole….”
Max, at that moment, knew that only a child could have given him a weather report like that.
Liesel, though, learns how dangerous words can be. Rosa, Liesel’s adoptive mama, does washing for the mayor’s wife Ilsa Hermann. However, in keeping with the hardships of war, the mayor determines they should not pay for things the other citizens cannot afford. Ilsa, an odd woman, grieving over the long-ago loss of her son, sits in her library filled with books, and Liesel
sprayed her words directly into the woman’s eyes…
She summoned theme 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. He got killed…. You think you’re the only one?”….
After a miscarriaged pause, the mayor’s wife edged forward and picked up the book. She was battered and beaten up, and not from smiling this time. Liesel could see it on her face. Blood leaked from her nose and licked at her lips. Her eyes had blackened. 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.
And then the utter futility of those words strikes her, and she rips up one of Ilsa Hermann’s books:
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 them, there wouldn’t be any of this. 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?
She apologizes in a letter, saying:
As you can see, I have been in your library again and I have ruined one of your books. I was just so angry and afraid and I wanted to kill the words…. I love this place and hate it, because it is full of words.
At this point, I picked up a book, and dear reader, brace yourself: I began to rip out the pages. Some students gasped. Some just looked surprised. I don’t think one was texting, though. I let the ripping of the pages speak for itself for a moment and then I told them: Maybe Liesel was naive for thinking hate wouldn’t exist without the pages of a book. But what about Max? He takes that hate, and he makes it into something beautiful.
And that was my students’ homework assignment. I picked up the first batch today. I told them they didn’t have to put their names on the sheet, but they did have to repurpose the page they took home. They could make it have something to do with the book or with hatred in general. I was impressed. I was actually really impressed with what I got. Here are some photos:
The one with most of the page blacked out is really impressive. The student only left some words, and those words convey this message:
The prisms of beautiful sunlight each soft, shimmered gently and were spilling like living paint. That light, fullest light could permeate my heart inside me and the luminous refraction of the shining moment tints the world and music inside my heart. I have all brightness in my heart.
How cool is that?