The Book Thief / Книжный вор (by Markus Zusak, 2006) - аудиокнига на английском

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The Book Thief / Книжный вор (by Markus Zusak, 2006) - аудиокнига на английском

The Book Thief / Книжный вор (by Markus Zusak, 2006) - аудиокнига на английском

История жизни Лизель Мемингер, девочки, которой в неполных десять лет предстоит узнать много горести. Отец пропал, мать не в силах прокормить ее и брата отправляет детей в семью где малышам будет лучше. Но так ли это будет на самом деле? Вскоре помирает брат нашей маленькой героини. Пережить утрату двоих родных людей не под силу даже взрослым. Малышка находит отраду в чтении книг. В то время даже еда это уже большая роскошь. Тем не менее Лизель заводит друга, в которого такое же увлечение. Дети мечтают о светлом будущем, которое непременно настанет с окончанием войны и гонений. А пока им остается только воровать книги и терпеть голод и холод. Вскоре появляется еще один друг, Макс Ванденбург, с которым много общего. Он, как и героиня прячется по подвалам и находит радость в чтении. Вскоре мальчика обнаруживают власти и отправляют в концлагерь. Лизель вновь одна со своими бедами и горестями, ведь в приемной семье ее не очень-то и жалуют, но жить как-то нужно, несмотря ни на что.

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The Book Thief / Книжный вор (by Markus Zusak, 2006) - аудиокнига на английском
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Markus Zusak
Allan Corduner
роман, военный, драма
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PROLOGUE a mountain range of rubble in which our narrator introduces: himself the colors and the book thief DEATH AND CHOCOLATE First the colors. Then the humans. Thats usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try. HERE IS A SMALL FACT You are going to die. I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And thats only the As. Just dont ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me. REACTION TO THE AFOREMENTIONED FACT Does this worry you? I urge youdont be afraid. Im nothing if not fair. Of course, an introduction. A beginning. Where are my manners? I could introduce myself properly, but its not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A color will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away. At that moment, you will be lying there (I rarely find people standing up). You will be caked in your own body. There might be a discovery; a scream will dribble down the air. The only sound Ill hear after that will be my own breathing, and the sound of the smell, of my footsteps. The question is, what color will everything be at that moment when I come for you? What will the sky be saying? Personally, I like a chocolate-colored sky. Dark, dark chocolate. People say it suits me. I do, however, try to enjoy every color I seethe whole spectrum. A billion or so flavors, none of them quite the same, and a sky to slowly suck on. It takes the edge off the stress. It helps me relax. A SMALL THEORY People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and ends, but to me its quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations, with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors. Waxy yellows, cloud-spat blues. Murky darknesses. In my line of work, I make it a point to notice them. As Ive been alluding to, my one saving grace is distraction. It keeps me sane. It helps me cope, considering the length of time Ive been performing this job. The trouble is, who could ever replace me? Who could step in while I take a break in your stock-standard resort-style vacation destination, whether it be tropical or of the ski trip variety? The answer, of course, is nobody, which has prompted me to make a conscious, deliberate decisionto make distraction my vacation. Needless to say, I vacation in increments. In colors. Still, its possible that you might be asking, why does he even need a vacation? What does he need distraction from? Which brings me to my next point. Its the leftover humans. The survivors. Theyre the ones I cant stand to look at, although on many occasions I still fail. I deliberately seek out the colors to keep my mind off them, but now and then, I witness the ones who are left behind, crumbling among the jigsaw puzzle of realization, despair, and surprise. They have punctured hearts. They have beaten lungs. Which in turn brings me to the subject I am telling you about tonight, or today, or whatever the hour and color. Its the story of one of those perpetual survivorsan expert at being left behind. Its 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 I saw the book thief three times. BESIDE THE RAILWAY LINE First up is something white. Of the blinding kind. Some of you are most likely thinking that white is not really a color and all of that tired sort of nonsense. Well, Im here to tell you that it is. White is without question a color, and personally, I dont think you want to argue with me. A REASSURING ANNOUNCEMENT Please, be calm, despite that previous threat. I am all bluster I am not violent. I am not malicious. I am a result. Yes, it was white. It felt as though the whole globe was dressed in snow. Like it had pulled it on, the way you pull on a sweater. Next to the train line, footprints were sunken to their shins. Trees wore blankets of ice. As you might expect, someone had died. They couldnt just leave him on the ground. For now, it wasnt such a problem, but very soon, the track ahead would be cleared and the train would need to move on. There were two guards. There was one mother and her daughter. One corpse. The mother, the girl, and the corpse remained stubborn and silent. Well, what else do you want me to do? The guards were tall and short. The tall one always spoke first, though he was not in charge. He looked at the smaller, rounder one. The one with the juicy red face. Well, was the response, we cant just leave them like this, can we? The tall one was losing patience. Why not? And the smaller one damn near exploded. He looked up at the tall ones chin and cried, Spinnst du?! Are you stupid?! The abhorrence on his cheeks was growing thicker by the moment. His skin widened. Come on, he said, traipsing over the snow. Well carry all three of them back on if we have to. Well notify the next stop. As for me, I had already made the most elementary of mistakes. I cant explain to you the severity of my self-disappointment. Originally, Id done everything right: I studied the blinding, white-snow sky who stood at the window of the moving train. I practically inhaled it, but still, I wavered. I buckledI became interested. In the girl. Curiosity got the better of me, and I resigned myself to stay as long as my schedule allowed, and I watched. Twenty-three minutes later, when the train was stopped, I climbed out with them. A small soul was in my arms. I stood a little to the right. The dynamic train guard duo made their way back to the mother, the girl, and the small male corpse. I clearly remember that my breath was loud that day. Im surprised the guards didnt notice me as they walked by. The world was sagging now, under the weight of all that snow. Perhaps ten meters to my left, the pale, empty-stomached girl was standing, frost-stricken. Her mouth jittered. Her cold arms were folded. Tears were frozen to the book thiefs face. THE ECLIPSE Next is a signature black, to show the poles of my versatility, if you like. It was the darkest moment before the dawn. This time, I had come for a man of perhaps twenty-four years of age. It was a beautiful thing in some ways. The plane was still coughing. Smoke was leaking from both its lungs. When it crashed, three deep gashes were made in the earth. Its wings were now sawn-off arms. No more flapping. Not for this metallic little bird. SOME OTHER SMALL FACTS Sometimes I arrive too early. I rush, and some people cling longer to life than expected. After a small collection of minutes, the smoke exhausted itself. There was nothing left to give. A boy arrived first, with cluttered breath and what appeared to be a toolbox. With great trepidation, he approached the cockpit and watched the pilot, gauging if he was alive, at which point, he still was. The book thief arrived perhaps thirty seconds later. Years had passed, but I recognized her. She was panting. From the toolbox, the boy took out, of all things, a teddy bear. He reached in through the torn windshield and placed it on the pilots chest. The smiling bear sat huddled among the crowded wreckage of the man and the blood. A few minutes later, I took my chance. The time was right. I walked in, loosened his soul, and carried it gently away. All that was left was the body, the dwindling smell of smoke, and the smiling teddy bear. As the crowd arrived in full, things, of course, had changed. The horizon was beginning to charcoal. What was left of the blackness above was nothing now but a scribble, and disappearing fast. The man, in comparison, was the color of bone. Skeleton-colored skin. A ruffled uniform. His eyes were cold and brownlike coffee stainsand the last scrawl from above formed what, to me, appeared an odd, yet familiar, shape. A signature. The crowd did what crowds do. As I made my way through, each person stood and played with the quietness of it. It was a small concoction of disjointed hand movements, muffled sentences, and mute, self-conscious turns. When I glanced back at the plane, the pilots open mouth appeared to be smiling. A final dirty joke. Another human punch line. He remained shrouded in his uniform as the graying light arm-wrestled the sky. As with many of the others, when I began my journey away, there seemed a quick shadow again, a final moment of eclipsethe recognition of another soul gone. You see, to me, for just a moment, despite all of the colors that touch and grapple with what I see in this world, I will often catch an eclipse when a human dies. Ive seen millions of them. Ive seen more eclipses than I care to remember. THE FLAG The last time I saw her was red. The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places, it was burned. There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked across the redness. Earlier, kids had been playing hopscotch there, on the street that looked like oil-stained pages. When I arrived, I could still hear the echoes. The feet tapping the road. The children-voices laughing, and the smiles like salt, but decaying fast. Then, bombs. This time, everything was too late. The sirens. The cuckoo shrieks in the radio. All too late. Within minutes, mounds of concrete and earth were stacked and piled. The streets were ruptured veins. Blood streamed till it was dried on the road, and the bodies were stuck there, like driftwood after the flood. They were glued down, every last one of them. A packet of souls. Was it fate? Misfortune? Is that what glued them down like that? Of course not. Lets not be stupid. It probably had more to do with the hurled bombs, thrown down by humans hiding in the clouds. Yes, the sky was now a devastating, home-cooked red. The small German town had been flung apart one more time. Snowflakes of ash fell so lovelily you were tempted to stretch out your tongue to catch them, taste them. Only, they would have scorched your lips. They would have cooked your mouth. Clearly, I see it. I was just about to leave when I found her kneeling there. A mountain range of rubble was written, designed, erected around her. She was clutching at a book. Apart from everything else, the book thief wanted desperately to go back to the basement, to write, or to read through her story one last time. In hindsight, I see it so obviously on her face. She was dying for it the safety of it, the home of itbut she could not move. Also, the basement didnt even exist anymore. It was part of the mangled landscape. Please, again, I ask you to believe me. I wanted to stop. To crouch down. I wanted to say: Im sorry, child. But that is not allowed. I did not crouch down. I did not speak. Instead, I watched her awhile. When she was able to move, I followed her. She dropped the book. She knelt. The book thief howled. Her book was stepped on several times as the cleanup began, and although orders were given only to clear the mess of concrete, the girls most precious item was thrown aboard a garbage truck, at which point I was compelled. I climbed aboard and took it in my hand, not realizing that I would keep it and view it several thousand times over the years. I would watch the places where we intersect, and marvel at what the girl saw and how she survived. That is the best I can do watch it fall into line with everything else I spectated during that time. When I recollect her, I see a long list of colors, but its the three in which I saw her in the flesh that resonate the most. Sometimes I manage to float far above those three moments. I hang suspended, until a septic truth bleeds toward clarity. Thats when I see them formulate. THE COLORS RED: WHITE: BLACK: They fall on top of each other. The scribbled signature black, onto the blinding global white, onto the thick soupy red. Yes, often, I am reminded of her, and in one of my vast array of pockets, I have kept her story to retell. It is one of the small legion I carry, each one extraordinary in its own right. Each one an attempt an immense leap of an attemptto prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it. Here it is. One of a handful. The Book Thief. If you feel like it, come with me. I will tell you a story. Ill show you something. PART ONE the grave diggers handbook featuring: himmel streetthe art of saumenschingan ironfisted womana kiss attemptjesse owens sandpaperthe smell of friendshipa heavyweight championand the mother of all watschens 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 traveling down toward Munich, where they would soon be given over to foster parents. We now know, of course, that the boy didnt make it. HOW IT HAPPENED There was an intense spurt of coughing. Almost an inspired spurt. And soon afternothing. 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 color 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. No one noticed. The train galloped on. Except the girl. With one eye open, one still in a dream, the book thiefalso known as Liesel Memingercould see without question that her younger brother, Werner, was now sideways and dead. His blue eyes stared at the floor. Seeing nothing. Prior to waking up, the book thief was dreaming about the Fhrer, Adolf Hitler. In the dream, she was attending a rally at which he spoke, looking at the skull-colored part in his hair and the perfect square of his mustache. She was listening contentedly to the torrent of words 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 smile and said, Guten Tag, Herr Fhrer. Wie gehts dir heut? She hadnt 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 Fhrer 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 knelt 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 boys 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 isnt happening. This isnt 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 cant 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 youve been informed, two guards also exited the train. They discussed and argued over what to do. The situation was unsavory 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 mothers arms. They stood. 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 grave diggers. AN OBSERVATION A pair of train guards. A pair of grave diggers. 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, its all I seem capable of at times. For two days, I went about my business. I traveled 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 Memingers brother. I did not heed my advice. From miles away, as I approached, I could already see the small group of humans standing frigidly among the wasteland of snow. The cemetery welcomed me like a friend, and soon, I was with them. I bowed my head. Standing to Liesels left, the grave diggers were rubbing their hands together and whining about the snow and the current digging conditions. So hard getting through all the ice, and so forth. One of them couldnt have been more than fourteen. An apprentice. When he walked away, after a few dozen paces, a black book fell innocuously from his coat pocket without his knowledge. A few minutes later, Liesels 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 couldnt be dead. He couldnt be dead. He couldnt 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 realized her mother had come back for her only 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 METERS 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 the cemetery, looking back several times. As for me, I remained a few moments longer. I waved. No one waved back. Mother and daughter vacated the cemetery and made their way toward 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 among them, the poor were the most easily recognized. 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 tripthe relative you cringe to kiss. I think her mother knew this quite well. She wasnt 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. The boy. 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 that woman walk? How could she move? Thats the sort of thing Ill never know, or comprehendwhat humans are capable of. She picked him up and continued walking, the girl clinging now 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. It was a goodbye that was wet, with the girls head buried into the woolly, worn shallows of her mothers coat. There had been some more dragging. Quite a way beyond the outskirts of Munich, there was a town called Molching, said best by the likes of you and me as Molking. Thats where they were taking her, to a street by the name of Himmel. A TRANSLATION Himmel = Heaven Whoever named Himmel Street certainly had a healthy sense of irony. Not that it was a living hell. It wasnt. But it sure as hell wasnt heaven, either. Regardless, Liesels foster parents were waiting. The Hubermanns. Theyd 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 didnt survive the trip. In fact, no one ever really wanted to tell her anything. As far as dispositions go, hers wasnt really enviable, although she had a good record with foster kids in the past. Apparently, shed straightened a few out. For Liesel, it was a ride in a car. Shed never been in one before. There was the constant rise and fall of her stomach, and the futile hopes that theyd lose their way or change their minds. Among it all, her thoughts couldnt help turning toward her mother, back at the Bahnhof, waiting to leave again. Shivering. Bundled up in that useless coat. Shed be eating her nails, waiting for the train. The platform would be long and uncomfortablea 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 gray, the color of Europe. Curtains of rain were drawn around the car. Nearly there. The foster care lady, Frau Heinrich, turned around 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 apartment blocks that look nervous. There is murky snow spread out like carpet. There is concrete, empty hat-stand trees, and gray 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 wouldnt 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, Liesels 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 wasnt 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 smoldering between his fingers. He rolled his own. The fact was this: Liesel would not get out of the car. Was ist los mit dem Kind? Rosa Hubermann inquired. She said it again. Whats 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 shed made, Liesel could see the tall mans fingers, still holding the cigarette. Ash stumbled from its edge and lunged and lifted several times until it hit the ground. It took nearly fifteen minutes to coax her from the car. It was the tall man who did it. Quietly. 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 HUBERMANNS ANNOUNCEMENT What are you assholes 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 grave digger 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. Ive looked everywhere. Everywhere! Im sure he would never have suspected the girl, and yet, there it wasa black book with silver words written against the ceiling of her clothes: THE GRAVE DIGGERS HANDBOOK A Twelve-Step Guide to Grave-Digging Success Published by the Bayern Cemetery Association The book thief had struck for the first timethe beginning of an illustrious career. GROWING UP A SAUMENSCH Yes, an illustrious career. I should hasten to admit, however, that there was a considerable hiatus between the first stolen book and the second. Another noteworthy point is that the first was stolen from snow and the second from fire. Not to omit that others were also given to her. All told, she owned fourteen books, but she saw her story as being made up predominantly of ten of them. Of those ten, six were stolen, one showed up at the kitchen table, two were made for her by a hidden Jew, and one was delivered by a soft, yellow-dressed afternoon. When she came to write her story, she would wonder exactly when the books and the words started to mean not just something, but everything. Was it when she first set eyes on the room with shelves and shelves of them? Or when Max Vandenburg arrived on Himmel Street carrying handfuls of suffering and Hitlers Mein Kampf ? Was it reading in the shelters? The last parade to Dachau? Was it The Word Shaker? Perhaps there would never be a precise answer as to when and where it occurred. In any case, thats getting ahead of myself. Before we make it to any of that, we first need to tour Liesel Memingers beginnings on Himmel Street and the art of saumensching: Upon her arrival, you could still see the bite marks of snow on her hands and the frosty blood on her fingers. Everything about her was undernourished. Wirelike shins. Coat hanger arms. She did not produce it easily, but when it came, she had a starving smile. Her hair was a close enough brand of German blond, but she had dangerous eyes. Dark brown. You didnt really want brown eyes in Germany around that time. Perhaps she received them from her father, but she had no way of knowing, as she couldnt remember him. There was really only one thing she knew about her father. It was a label she did not understand. A STRANGE WORD Kommunist Shed heard it several times in the past few years. Communist. There were boardinghouses crammed with people, rooms filled with questions. And that word. That strange word was always there somewhere, standing in the corner, watching from the dark. It wore suits, uniforms. No matter where they went, there it was, each time her father was mentioned. She could smell it and taste it. She just couldnt spell or understand it. When she asked her mother what it meant, she was told that it wasnt important, that she shouldnt worry about such things. At one boardinghouse, there was a healthier woman who tried to teach the children to write, using charcoal on the wall. Liesel was tempted to ask her the meaning, but it never eventuated. One day, that woman was taken away for questioning. She didnt come back. When Liesel arrived in Molching, she had at least some inkling that she was being saved, but that was not a comfort. If her mother loved her, why leave her on someone elses doorstep? Why? Why? Why? The fact that she knew the answerif only at the most basic levelseemed beside the point. Her mother was constantly sick and there was never any money to fix her. Liesel knew that. But that didnt mean she had to accept it. 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. The Hubermanns lived in one of the small, boxlike houses on Himmel Street. A few rooms, a kitchen, and a shared outhouse with neighbors. The roof was flat and there was a shallow basement for storage. It was supposedly not a basement of adequate depth. In 1939, this wasnt a problem. Later, in 42 and 43, it was. When air raids started, they always needed to rush down the street to a better shelter. In the beginning, it was the profanity that made an immediate impact. It was so vehement and prolific. Every second word was either Saumensch or Saukerl or Arschloch. For people who arent familiar with these words, I should explain. Sau, of course, refers to pigs. In the case of Saumensch, it serves to castigate, berate, or plain humiliate a female. Saukerl (pronounced saukairl) is for a male. Arschloch can be translated directly into asshole. That word, however, does not differentiate between the sexes. It simply is. Saumensch, du dreckiges! Liesels foster mother shouted that first evening when she refused to have a bath. You filthy pig! Why wont you get undressed? She was good at being furious. In fact, you could say that Rosa Hubermann had a face decorated with constant fury. That was how the creases were made in the cardboard texture of her complexion. Liesel, naturally, was bathed in anxiety. There was no way she was getting into any bath, or into bed for that matter. She was twisted into one corner of the closetlike washroom, clutching for the nonexistent arms of the wall for some level of support. There was nothing but dry paint, difficult breath, and the deluge of abuse from Rosa. Leave her alone. Hans Hubermann entered the fray. His gentle voice made its way in, as if slipping through a crowd. Leave her to me. He moved closer and sat on the floor, against the wall. The tiles were cold and unkind. You know how to roll a cigarette? he asked her, and for the next hour or so, they sat in the rising pool of darkness, playing with the tobacco and the cigarette papers and Hans Hubermann smoking them. When the hour was up, Liesel could roll a cigarette moderately well. She still didnt have a bath. SOME FACTS ABOUT HANS HUBERMANN He loved to smoke. The main thing he enjoyed about smoking was the rolling. He was a painter by trade and played the piano accordion. This came in handy, especially in winter, when he could make a little money playing in the pubs of Molching, like the Knoller. He had already cheated me in one world war but would later be put into another (as a perverse kind of reward), where he would somehow manage to avoid me again. To most people, Hans Hubermann was barely visible. An un-special person. Certainly, his painting skills were excellent. His musical ability was better than average. Somehow, though, and Im sure youve met people like this, he was able to appear as merely part of the background, even if he was standing at the front of a line. He was always just there. Not noticeable. Not important or particularly valuable. The frustration of that appearance, as you can imagine, was its complete misleadence, lets say. There most definitely was value in him, and it did not go unnoticed by Liesel Meminger. (The human childso much cannier at times than the stupefyingly ponderous adult.) She saw it immediately. His manner. The quiet air around him. When he turned the light on in the small, callous washroom that night, Liesel observed the strangeness of her foster fathers eyes. They were made of kindness, and silver. Like soft silver, melting. Liesel, upon seeing those eyes, understood that Hans Hubermann was worth a lot. SOME FACTS ABOUT ROSA HUBERMANN She was five feet, one inch tall and wore her browny gray strands of elastic hair in a bun. To supplement the Hubermann income, she did the washing and ironing for five of the wealthier households in Molching. Her cooking was atrocious. She possessed the unique ability to aggravate almost anyone she ever met. But she did love Liesel Meminger. Her way of showing it just happened to be strange. It involved bashing her with wooden spoon and words at various intervals. When Liesel finally had a bath, after two weeks of living on Himmel Street, Rosa gave her an enormous, injury-inducing hug. Nearly choking her, she said, Saumensch, du dreckigesits about time! After a few months, they were no longer Mr. and Mrs. Hubermann. With a typical fistful of words, Rosa said, Now listen, Lieselfrom now on you call me Mama. She thought a moment. What did you call your real mother? Liesel answered quietly. Auch Mamaalso Mama. Well, Im Mama Number Two, then. She looked over at her husband. And him over there. She seemed to collect the words in her hand, pat them together, and hurl them across the table. That Saukerl, that filthy pigyou call him Papa, verstehst? Understand? Yes, Liesel promptly agreed. Quick answers were appreciated in this household. Yes, Mama, Mama corrected her. Saumensch. Call me Mama when you talk to me. At that moment, Hans Hubermann had just completed rolling a cigarette, having licked the paper and joined it all up. He looked over at Liesel and winked. She would have no trouble calling him Papa. THE WOMAN WITH THE IRON FIST Those first few months were definitely the hardest. Every night, Liesel would nightmare. Her brothers face. Staring at the floor. She would wake up swimming in her bed, screaming, and drowning in the flood of sheets. On the other side of the room, the bed that was meant for her brother floated boatlike in the darkness. Slowly, with the arrival of consciousness, it sank, seemingly into the floor. This vision didnt help matters, and it would usually be quite a while before the screaming stopped. Possibly the only good to come out of these nightmares was that it brought Hans Hubermann, her new papa, into the room, to soothe her, to love her. He came in every night and sat with her. The first couple of times, he simply stayeda stranger to kill the aloneness. A few nights after that, he whispered, Shhh, Im here, its all right. After three weeks, he held her. Trust was accumulated quickly, due primarily to the brute strength of the mans gentleness, his thereness. The girl knew from the outset that Hans Hubermann would always appear midscream, and he would not leave. A DEFINITION NOT FOUND IN THE DICTIONARY Not leaving: an act of trust and love, often deciphered by children Hans Hubermann sat sleepy-eyed on the bed and Liesel would cry into his sleeves and breathe him in. Every morning, just after two oclock, she fell asleep again to the smell of him. It was a mixture of dead cigarettes, decades of paint, and human skin. At first, she sucked it all in, then breathed it, until she drifted back down. Each morning, he was a few feet away from her, crumpled, almost halved, in the chair. He never used the other bed. Liesel would climb out and cautiously kiss his cheek and he would wake up and smile. Some days Papa told her to get back into bed and wait a minute, and he would return with his accordion and play for her. Liesel would sit up and hum, her cold toes clenched with excitement. No one had ever given her music before. She would grin herself stupid, watching the lines drawing themselves down his face and the soft metal of his eyesuntil the swearing arrived from the kitchen. STOPTHATNOISE, SAUKERL! Papa would play a little longer. He would wink at the girl, and clumsily, shed wink back. A few times, purely to incense Mama a little further, he also brought the instrument to the kitchen and played through breakfast. Papas bread and jam would be half eaten on his plate, curled into the shape of bite marks, and the music would look Liesel in the face. I know it sounds strange, but thats how it felt to her. Papas right hand strolled the tooth-colored keys. His left hit the buttons. (She especially loved to see him hit the silver, sparkled buttonthe C major.) The accordions scratched yet shiny black exterior came back and forth as his arms squeezed the dusty bellows, making it suck in the air and throw it back out. In the kitchen on those mornings, Papa made the accordion live. I guess it makes sense, when you really think about it. How do you tell if somethings alive? You check for breathing. The sound of the accordion was, in fact, also the announcement of safety. Daylight. During the day, it was impossible to dream of her brother. She would miss him and frequently cry in the tiny washroom as quietly as possible, but she was still glad to be awake. On her first night with the Hubermanns, she had hidden her last link to him The Grave Diggers Handbookunder her mattress, and occasionally she would pull it out and hold it. Staring at the letters on the cover and touching the print inside, she had no idea what any of it was saying. The point is, it didnt really matter what that book was about. It was what it meant that was more important. THE BOOKS MEANING The last time she saw her brother. The last time she saw her mother. Sometimes she would whisper the word Mama and see her mothers face a hundred times in a single afternoon. But those were small miseries compared to the terror of her dreams. At those times, in the enormous mileage of sleep, she had never felt so completely alone. As Im sure youve already noticed, there were no other children in the house. The Hubermanns had two of their own, but they were older and had moved out. Hans Junior worked in the center of Munich, and Trudy held a job as a housemaid and child minder. Soon, they would both be in the war. One would be making bullets. The other would be shooting them. School, as you might imagine, was a terrific failure. Although it was state-run, there was a heavy Catholic influence, and Liesel was Lutheran. Not the most auspicious start. Then they discovered she couldnt read or write. Humiliatingly, she was cast down with the younger kids, who were only just learning the alphabet. Even though she was thin-boned and pale, she felt gigantic among the midget children, and she often wished she was pale enough to disappear altogether. Even at home, there wasnt much room for guidance. Dont ask him for help, Mama pointed out. That Saukerl. Papa was staring out the window, as was often his habit. He left school in fourth grade. Without turning around, Papa answered calmly, but with venom, Well, dont ask her, either. He dropped some ash outside. She left school in third grade. There were no books in the house (apart from the one she had secreted under her mattress), and the best Liesel could do was speak the alphabet under her breath before she was told in no uncertain terms to keep quiet. All that mumbling. It wasnt until later, when there was a bed-wetting incident midnightmare, that an extra reading education began. Unofficially, it was called the midnight class, even though it usually commenced at around two in the morning. More of that soon. In mid-February, when she turned ten, Liesel was given a used doll that had a missing leg and yellow hair. It was the best we could do, Papa apologized. What are you talking about? Shes lucky to have that much, Mama corrected him. Hans continued his examination of the remaining leg while Liesel tried on her new uniform. Ten years old meant Hitler Youth. Hitler Youth meant a small brown uniform. Being female, Liesel was enrolled into what was called the BDM. EXPLANATION OF THE ABBREVIATION It stood for Bund Deutscher Mdchen Band of German Girls. The first thing they did there was make sure your heil Hitler was working properly. Then you were taught to march straight, roll bandages, and sew up clothes. You were also taken hiking and on other such activities. Wednesday and Saturday were the designated meeting days, from three in the afternoon until five. Each Wednesday and Saturday, Papa would walk Liesel there and pick her up two hours later. They never spoke about it much. They just held hands and listened to their feet, and Papa had a cigarette or two. The only anxiety Papa brought her was the fact that he was constantly leaving. Many evenings, he would walk into the living room (which doubled as the Hubermanns bedroom), pull the accordion from the old cupboard, and squeeze past in the kitchen to the front door. As he walked up Himmel Street, Mama would open the window and cry out, Dont be home too late! Not so loud, he would turn and call back. Saukerl! Lick my ass! Ill speak as loud as I want! The echo of her swearing followed him up the street. He never looked back, or at least, not until he was sure his wife was gone. On those evenings, at the end of the street, accordion case in hand, he would turn around, just before Frau Dillers corner shop, and see the figure who had replaced his wife in the window. Briefly, his long, ghostly hand would rise before he turned again and walked slowly on. The next time Liesel saw him would be at two in the morning, when he dragged her gently from her nightmare. Evenings in the small kitchen were raucous, without fail. Rosa Hubermann was always talking, and when she was talking, it took the form of schimpfen. She was constantly arguing and complaining. There was no one to really argue with, but Mama managed it expertly every chance she had. She could argue with the entire world in that kitchen, and almost every evening, she did. Once they had eaten and Papa was gone, Liesel and Rosa would usually remain there, and Rosa would do the ironing. A few times a week, Liesel would come home from school and walk the streets of Molching with her mama, picking up and delivering washing and ironing from the wealthier parts of town. Knaupt Strasse, Heide Strasse. A few others. Mama would deliver the ironing or pick up the washing with a dutiful smile, but as soon as the door was shut and she walked away, she would curse these rich people, with all their money and laziness. Too gschtinkerdt to wash their own clothes, she would say, despite her dependence on them. Him, she accused Herr Vogel from Heide Strasse. Made all his money from his father. He throws it away on women and drink. And washing and ironing, of course. It was like a roll call of scorn. Herr Vogel, Herr and Frau Pfaffelhrver, Helena Schmidt, the Weingartners. They were all guilty of something. Apart from his drunkenness and expensive lechery, Ernst Vogel, according to Rosa, was constantly scratching his louse-ridden hair, licking his fingers, and then handing over the money. I should wash it before I come home, was her summation. The Pfaffelhrvers scrutinized the results. Not one crease in these shirts, please, Rosa imitated them. Not one wrinkle in this suit. And then they stand there and inspect it all, right in front of me. Right under my nose! What a Gsindelwhat trash. The Weingartners were apparently stupid people with a constantly molting Saumensch of a cat. Do you know how long it takes me to get rid of all that fur? Its everywhere! Helena Schmidt was a rich widow. That old cripplesitting there just wasting away. Shes never had to do a days work in all her life. Rosas greatest disdain, however, was reserved for 8 Grande Strasse. A large house, high on a hill, in the upper part of Molching. This one, shed pointed out to Liesel the first time they went there, is the mayors house. That crook. His wife sits at home all day, too mean to light a fireits always freezing in there. Shes crazy. She punctuated the words. Absolutely. Crazy. At the gate, she motioned to the girl. You go. Liesel was horrified. A giant brown door with a brass knocker stood atop a small flight of steps. What? Mama shoved her. Dont you what me, Saumensch. Move it. Liesel moved it. She walked the path, climbed the steps, hesitated, and knocked. A bathrobe answered the door. Inside it, a woman with startled eyes, hair like fluff, and the posture of defeat stood in front of her. She saw Mama at the gate and handed the girl a bag of washing. Thank you, Liesel said, but there was no reply. Only the door. It closed. You see? said Mama when she returned to the gate. This is what I have to put up with. These rich bastards, these lazy swine . . . Holding the washing as they walked away, Liesel looked back. The brass knocker eyed her from the door. When she finished berating the people she worked for, Rosa Hubermann would usually move on to her other favorite theme of abuse. Her husband. Looking at the bag of washing and the hunched houses, she would talk, and talk, and talk. If your papa was any good, she informed Liesel every time they walked through Molching, I wouldnt have to do this. She sniffed with derision. A painter! Why marry that Arschloch ? Thats what they told memy family, that is. Their footsteps crunched along the path. And here I am, walking the streets and slaving in my kitchen because that Saukerl never has any work. No real work, anyway. Just that pathetic accordion in those dirt holes every night. Yes, Mama. Is that all youve got to say? Mamas eyes were like pale blue cutouts, pasted to her face. Theyd walk on. With Liesel carrying the sack. At home, it was washed in a boiler next to the stove, hung up by the fireplace in the living room, and then ironed in the kitchen. The kitchen was where the action was. Did you hear that? Mama asked her nearly every night. The iron was in her fist, heated from the stove. Light was dull all through the house, and Liesel, sitting at the kitchen table, would be staring at the gaps of fire in front of her. What? shed reply. What is it? That was that Holtzapfel. Mama was already out of her seat. That Saumensch just spat on our door again. It was a tradition for Frau Holtzapfel, one of their neighbors, to spit on the Hubermanns door every time she walked past. The front door was only meters from the gate, and lets just say that Frau Holtzapfel had the distanceand the accuracy. The spitting was due to the fact that she and Rosa Hubermann were engaged in some kind of decade-long verbal war. No one knew the origin of this hostility. Theyd probably forgotten it themselves. Frau Holtzapfel was a wiry woman and quite obviously spiteful. Shed never married but had two sons, a few years older than the Hubermann offspring. Both were in the army and both will make cameo appearances by the time were finished here, I assure you. In the spiteful stakes, I should also say that Frau Holtzapfel was thorough with her spitting, too. She never neglected to spuck on the door of number thirty-three and say, Schweine! each time she walked past. One thing Ive noticed about the Germans: They seem very fond of pigs. A SMALL QUESTION AND ITS ANSWER And who do you think was made to clean the spit off the door each night? Yesyou got it. When a woman with an iron fist tells you to get out there and clean spit off the door, you do it. Especially when the irons hot. It was all just part of the routine, really. Each night, Liesel would step outside, wipe the door, and watch the sky. Usually it was like spillagecold and heavy, slippery and graybut once in a while some stars had the nerve to rise and float, if only for a few minutes. On those nights, she would stay a little longer and wait. Hello, stars. Waiting. For the voice from the kitchen. Or till the stars were dragged down again, into the waters of the German sky. THE KISS (A Childhood Decision Maker) As with most small towns, Molching was filled with characters. A handful of them lived on Himmel Street. Frau Holtzapfel was only one cast member. The others included the likes of these: Rudy Steinerthe boy next door who was obsessed with the black American athlete Jesse Owens. Frau Dillerthe staunch Aryan corner-shop owner. Tommy Mllera kid whose chronic ear infections had resulted in several operations, a pink river of skin painted across his face, and a tendency to twitch. A man known primarily as Pfiffikuswhose vulgarity made Rosa Hubermann look like a wordsmith and a saint. On the whole, it was a street filled with relatively poor people, despite the apparent rise of Germanys economy under Hitler. Poor sides of town still existed. As mentioned already, the house next door to the Hubermanns was rented by a family called Steiner. The Steiners had six children. One of them, the infamous Rudy, would soon become Liesels best friend, and later, her partner and sometime catalyst in crime. She met him on the street. A few days after Liesels first bath, Mama allowed her out, to play with the other kids. On Himmel Street, friendships were made outside, no matter the weather. The children rarely visited each others homes, for they were small and there was usually very little in them. Also, they conducted their favorite pastime, like professionals, on the street. Soccer. Teams were well set. Garbage cans were used to mark out the goals. Being the new kid in town, Liesel was immediately shoved between one pair of those cans. (Tommy Mller was finally set free, despite being the most useless soccer player Himmel Street had ever seen.) It all went nicely for a while, until the fateful moment when Rudy Steiner was upended in the snow by a Tommy Mller foul of frustration. What?! Tommy shouted. His face twitched in desperation. What did I do?! A penalty was awarded by everyone on Rudys team, and now it was Rudy Steiner against the new kid, Liesel Meminger. He placed the ball on a grubby mound of snow, confident of the usual outcome. After all, Rudy hadnt missed a penalty in eighteen shots, even when the opposition made a point of booting Tommy Mller out of goal. No matter whom they replaced him with, Rudy would score. On this occasion, they tried to force Liesel out. As you might imagine, she protested, and Rudy agreed. No, no. He smiled. Let her stay. He was rubbing his hands together. Snow had stopped falling on the filthy street now, and the muddy footprints were gathered between them. Rudy shuffled in, fired the shot, and Liesel dived and somehow deflected it with her elbow. She stood up grinning, but the first thing she saw was a snowball smashing into her face. Half of it was mud. It stung like crazy. How do you like that? The boy grinned, and he ran off in pursuit of the ball. Saukerl, Liesel whispered. The vocabulary of her new home was catching on fast. SOME FACTS ABOUT RUDY STEINER He was eight months older than Liesel and had bony legs, sharp teeth, gangly blue eyes, and hair the color of a lemon. One of six Steiner children, he was permanently hungry. On Himmel Street, he was considered a little crazy. This was on account of an event that was rarely spoken about but widely regarded as The Jesse Owens Incident, in which he painted himself charcoal black and ran the 100 meters at the local playing field one night. Insane or not, Rudy was always destined to be Liesels best friend. A snowball in the face is surely the perfect beginning to a lasting friendship. A few days after Liesel started school, she went along with the Steiners. Rudys mother, Barbara, made him promise to walk with the new girl, mainly because shed heard about the snowball. To Rudys credit, he was happy enough to comply. He was not the junior misogynistic type of boy at all. He liked girls a lot, and he liked Liesel (hence, the snowball). In fact, Rudy Steiner was one of those audacious little bastards who actually fancied himself with the ladies. Every childhood seems to have exactly such a juvenile in its midst and mists. Hes the boy who refuses to fear the opposite sex, purely because everyone else embraces that particular fear, and hes the type who is unafraid to make a decision. In this case, Rudy had already made up his mind about Liesel Meminger. On the way to school, he tried to point out certain landmarks in the town, or at least, he managed to slip it all in, somewhere between telling his younger siblings to shut their faces and the older ones telling him to shut his. His first point of interest was a small window on the second floor of an apartment block. Thats where Tommy Mller lives. He realized that Liesel didnt remember him. The twitcher? When he was five years old, he got lost at the markets on the coldest day of the year. Three hours later, when they found him, he was frozen solid and had an awful earache from the cold. After a while, his ears were all infected inside and he had three or four operations and the doctors wrecked his nerves. So now he twitches. Liesel chimed in, And hes bad at soccer. The worst. Next was the corner shop at the end of Himmel Street. Frau Dillers. AN IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT FRAU DILLER She had one golden rule. Frau Diller was a sharp-edged woman with fat glasses and a nefarious glare. She developed this evil look to discourage the very idea of stealing from her shop, which she occupied with soldierlike posture, a refrigerated voice, and even breath that smelled like heil Hitler. The shop itself was white and cold, and completely bloodless. The small house compressed beside it shivered with a little more severity than the other buildings on Himmel Street. Frau Diller administered this feeling, dishing it out as the only free item from her premises. She lived for her shop and her shop lived for the Third Reich. Even when rationing started later in the year, she was known to sell certain hard-to-get items under the counter and donate the money to the Nazi Party. On the wall behind her usual sitting position was a framed photo of the Fhrer. If you walked into her shop and didnt say heil Hitler, you wouldnt be served. As they walked by, Rudy drew Liesels attention to the bulletproof eyes leering from the shop window. Say heil when you go in there, he warned her stiffly. Unless you want to walk a little farther. Even when they were well past the shop, Liesel looked back and the magnified eyes were still there, fastened to the window. Around the corner, Munich Street (the main road in and out of Molching) was strewn with slosh. As was often the case, a few rows of troops in training came marching past. Their uniforms walked upright and their black boots further polluted the snow. Their faces were fixed ahead in concentration. Once theyd watched the soldiers disappear, the group of Steiners and Liesel walked past some shop windows and the imposing town hall, which in later years would be chopped off at the knees and buried. A few of the shops were abandoned and still labeled with yellow stars and anti-Jewish slurs. Farther down, the church aimed itself at the sky, its rooftop a study of collaborated tiles. The street, overall, was a lengthy tube of graya corridor of dampness, people stooped in the cold, and the splashed sound of watery footsteps. At one stage, Rudy rushed ahead, dragging Liesel with him. He knocked on the window of a tailors shop. Had she been able to read the sign, she would have noticed that it belonged to Rudys father. The shop was not yet open, but inside, a man was preparing articles of clothing behind the counter. He looked up and waved. My papa, Rudy informed her, and they were soon among a crowd of various-sized Steiners, each waving or blowing kisses at their father or simply standing and nodding hello (in the case of the oldest ones), then moving on, toward the final landmark before school. THE LAST STOP The road of yellow stars It was a place nobody wanted to stay and look at, but almost everyone did. Shaped like a long, broken arm, the road contained several houses with lacerated windows and bruised walls. The Star of David was painted on their doors. Those houses were almost like lepers. At the very least, they were infected sores on the injured German terrain. Schiller Strasse, Rudy said. The road of yellow stars. At the bottom, some people were moving around. The drizzle made them look like ghosts. Not humans, but shapes, moving about beneath the lead-colored clouds. Come on, you two, Kurt (the oldest of the Steiner children) called back, and Rudy and Liesel walked quickly toward him. At school, Rudy made a special point of seeking Liesel out during the breaks. He didnt care that others made noises about the new girls stupidity. He was there for her at the beginning, and he would be there later on, when Liesels frustration boiled over. But he wouldnt do it for free. THE ONLY THING WORSE THAN A BOY WHO HATES YOU A boy who loves you. In late April, when theyd returned from school for the day, Rudy and Liesel waited on Himmel Street for the usual game of soccer. They were slightly early, and no other kids had turned up yet. The one person they saw was the gutter-mouthed Pfiffikus. Look there. Rudy pointed. A PORTRAIT OF PFIFFIKUS He was a delicate frame. He was white hair. He was a black raincoat, brown pants, decomposing shoes, and a mouthand what a mouth it was. Hey, Pfiffikus! As the distant figure turned, Rudy started whistling. The old man simultaneously straightened and proceeded to swear with a ferocity that can only be described as a talent. No one seemed to know the real name that belonged to him, or at least if they did, they never used it. He was only called Pfiffikus because you give that name to someone who likes to whistle, which Pfiffikus most definitely did. He was constantly whistling a tune called the Radetzky March, and all the kids in town would call out to him and duplicate that tune. At that precise moment, Pfiffikus would abandon his usual walking style (bent forward, taking large, lanky steps, arms behind his raincoated back) and erect himself to deliver abuse. It was then that any impression of serenity was violently interrupted, for his voice was brimming with rage. On this occasion, Liesel followed Rudys taunt almost as a reflex action. Pfiffikus! she echoed, quickly adopting the appropriate cruelty that childhood seems to require. Her whistling was awful, but there was no time to perfect it. He chased them, calling out. It started with Geh scheissen! and deteriorated rapidly from there. At first, he leveled his abuse only at the boy, but soon enough, it was Liesels turn. You little slut! he roared at her. The words clobbered her in the back. Ive never seen you before! Fancy calling a ten-year-old girl a slut. That was Pfiffikus. It was widely agreed that he and Frau Holtzapfel would have made a lovely couple. Get back here! were the last words Liesel and Rudy heard as they continued running. They ran until they were on Munich Street. Come on, Rudy said, once theyd recovered their breath. Just down here a little. He took her to Hubert Oval, the scene of the Jesse Owens incident, where they stood, hands in pockets. The track was stretched out in front of them. Only one thing could happen. Rudy started it. Hundred meters, he goaded her. I bet you cant beat me. Liesel wasnt taking any of that. I bet you I can. What do you bet, you little Saumensch? Have you got any money? Of course not. Do you? No. But Rudy had an idea. It was the lover boy coming out of him. If I beat you, I get to kiss you. He crouched down and began rolling up his trousers. Liesel was alarmed, to put it mildly. What do you want to kiss me for? Im filthy. So am I. Rudy clearly saw no reason why a bit of filth should get in the way of things. It had been a while between baths for both of them. She thought about it while examining the weedy legs of her opposition. They were about equal with her own. Theres no way he can beat me, she thought. She nodded seriously. This was business. You can kiss me if you win. But if I win, I get out of being goalie at soccer. Rudy considered it. Fair enough, and they shook on it. All was dark-skied and hazy, and small chips of rain were starting to fall. The track was muddier than it looked. Both competitors were set. Rudy threw a rock in the air as the starting pistol. When it hit the ground, they could start running. I cant even see the finish line, Liesel complained. And I can? The rock wedged itself into the earth. They ran next to each other, elbowing and trying to get in front. The slippery ground slurped at their feet and brought them down perhaps twenty meters from the end. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! yelped Rudy. Im covered in shit! Its not shit, Liesel corrected him, its mud, although she had her doubts. Theyd slid another five meters toward the finish. Do we call it a draw, then? Rudy looked over, all sharp teeth and gangly blue eyes. Half his face was painted with mud. If its a draw, do I still get my kiss? Not in a million years. Liesel stood up and flicked some mud off her jacket. Ill get you out of goalie. Stick your goalie. As they walked back to Himmel Street, Rudy forewarned her. One day, Liesel, he said, youll be dying to kiss me. But Liesel knew. She vowed. As long as both she and Rudy Steiner lived, she would never kiss that miserable, filthy Saukerl, especially not this day. There were more important matters to attend to. She looked down at her suit of mud and stated the obvious. Shes going to kill me. She, of course, was Rosa Hubermann, also known as Mama, and she very nearly did kill her. The word Saumensch featured heavily in the administration of punishment. She made mincemeat out of her. THE JESSE OWENS INCIDENT As we both know, Liesel wasnt on hand on Himmel Street when Rudy performed his act of childhood infamy. When she looked back, though, it felt like shed actually been there. In her memory, she had somehow become a member of Rudys imaginary audience. Nobody else mentioned it, but Rudy certainly made up for that, so much that when Liesel came to recollect her story, the Jesse Owens incident was as much a part of it as everything she witnessed firsthand. It was 1936. The Olympics. Hitlers games. Jesse Owens had just completed the 4 100m relay and won his fourth gold medal. Talk that he was subhuman because he was black and Hitlers refusal to shake his hand were touted around the world. Even the most racist Germans were amazed with the efforts of Owens, and word of his feat slipped through the cracks. No one was more impressed than Rudy Steiner. Everyone in his family was crowded together in their family room when he slipped out and made his way to the kitchen. He pulled some charcoal from the stove and gripped it in the smallness of his hands. Now. There was a smile. He was ready. He smeared the charcoal on, nice and thick, till he was covered in black. Even his hair received a once-over. In the window, the boy grinned almost maniacally at his reflection, and in his shorts and tank top, he quietly abducted his older brothers bike and pedaled it up the street, heading for Hubert Oval. In one of his pockets, hed hidden a few pieces of extra charcoal, in case some of it wore off later. In Liesels mind, the moon was sewn into the sky that night. Clouds were stitched around it. The rusty bike crumbled to a halt at the Hubert Oval fence line and Rudy climbed over. He landed on the other side and trotted weedily up toward the beginning of the hundred. Enthusiastically, he conducted an awkward regimen of stretches. He dug starting holes into the dirt. Waiting for his moment, he paced around, gathering concentration under the darkness sky, with the moon and the clouds watching, tightly. Owens is looking good, he began to commentate. This could be his greatest victory ever. . . . He shook the imaginary hands of the other athletes and wished them luck, even though he knew. They didnt have a chance. The starter signaled them forward. A crowd materialized around every square inch of Hubert Ovals circumference. They were all calling out one thing. They were chanting Rudy Steiners nameand his name was Jesse Owens. All fell silent. His bare feet gripped the soil. He could feel it holding on between his toes. At the request of the starter, he raised to crouching positionand the gun clipped a hole in the night. For the first third of the race, it was pretty even, but it was only a matter of time before the charcoaled Owens drew clear and streaked away. Owens in front, the boys shrill voice cried as he ran down the empty track, straight toward the uproarious applause of Olympic glory. He could even feel the tape break in two across his chest as he burst through it in first place. The fastest man alive. It was only on his victory lap that things turned sour. Among the crowd, his father was standing at the finish line like the bogeyman. Or at least, the bogeyman in a suit. (As previously mentioned, Rudys father was a tailor. He was rarely seen on the street without a suit and tie. On this occasion, it was only the suit and a disheveled shirt.) Was ist los? he said to his son when he showed up in all his charcoal glory. What the hell is going on here? The crowd vanished. A breeze sprang up. I was asleep in my chair when Kurt noticed you were gone. Everyones out looking for you. Mr. Steiner was a remarkably polite man under normal circumstances. Discovering one of his children smeared charcoal black on a summer evening was not what he considered normal circumstances. The boy is crazy, he muttered, although he conceded that with six kids, something like this was bound to happen. At least one of them had to be a bad egg. Right now, he was looking at it, waiting for an explanation. Well? Rudy panted, bending down and placing his hands on his knees. I was being Jesse Owens. He answered as though it was the most natural thing on earth to be doing. There was even something implicit in his tone that suggested something along the lines of, What the hell does it look like? The tone vanished, however, when he saw the sleep deprivation whittled under his fathers eyes. Jesse Owens? Mr. Steiner was the type of man who was very wooden. His voice was angular and true. His body was tall and heavy, like oak. His hair was like splinters. What about him? You know, Papa, the Black Magic one. Ill give you black magic. He caught his sons ear between his thumb and forefinger. Rudy winced. Ow, that really hurts. Does it? His father was more concerned with the clammy texture of charcoal contaminating his fingers. He covered everything, didnt he? he thought. Its even in his ears, for Gods sake. Come on. On the way home, Mr. Steiner decided to talk politics with the boy as best he could. Only in the years ahead would Rudy understand it all when it was too late to bother understanding anything. THE CONTRADICTORY POLITICS OF ALEX STEINER Point One: He was a member of the Nazi Party, but he did not hate the Jews, or anyone else for that matter. Point Two: Secretly, though, he couldnt help feeling a percentage of relief (or worsegladness!) when Jewish shop owners were put out of business propaganda informed him that it was only a matter of time before a plague of Jewish tailors showed up and stole his customers. Point Three: But did that mean they should be driven out completely? Point Four: His family. Surely, he had to do whatever he could to support them. If that meant being in the party, it meant being in the party. Point Five: Somewhere, far down, there was an itch in his heart, but he made it a point not to scratch it. He was afraid of what might come leaking out. They walked around a few corners onto Himmel Street, and Alex said, Son, you cant go around painting yourself black, you hear? Rudy was interested, and confused. The moon was undone now, free to move and rise and fall and drip on the boys face, making him nice and murky, like his thoughts. Why not, Papa? Because theyll take you away. Why? Because you shouldnt want to be like black people or Jewish people or anyone who is . . . not us. Who are Jewish people? You know my oldest customer, Mr. Kaufmann? Where we bought your shoes? Yes. Well, hes Jewish. I didnt know that. Do you have to pay to be Jewish? Do you need a license? No, Rudy. Mr. Steiner was steering the bike with one hand and Rudy with the other. He was having trouble steering the conversation. He still hadnt relinquished the hold on his sons earlobe. Hed forgotten about it. Its like youre German or Catholic. Oh. Is Jesse Owens Catholic? I dont know! He tripped on a bike pedal then and released the ear. They walked on in silence for a while, until Rudy said, I just wish I was like Jesse Owens, Papa. This time, Mr. Steiner placed his hand on Rudys head and explained, I know, sonbut youve got beautiful blond hair and big, safe blue eyes. You should be happy with that; is that clear? But nothing was clear. Rudy understood nothing, and that night was the prelude of things to come. Two and a half years later, the Kaufmann Shoe Shop was reduced to broken glass, and all the shoes were flung aboard a truck in their boxes. THE OTHER SIDE OF SANDPAPER People have defining moments, I suppose, especially when theyre children. For some its a Jesse Owens incident. For others its a moment of bed-wetting hysteria: It was late May 1939, and the night had been like most others. Mama shook her iron fist. Papa was out. Liesel cleaned the front door and watched the Himmel Street sky. Earlier, there had been a parade. The brown-shirted extremist members of the NSDAP (otherwise known as the Nazi Party) had marched down Munich Street, their banners worn proudly, their faces held high, as if on sticks. Their voices were full of song, culminating in a roaring rendition of Deutschland ber Alles. Germany over Everything. As always, they were clapped. They were spurred on as they walked to who knows where. People on the street stood and watched, some with straight-armed salutes, others with hands that burned from applause. Some kept faces that were contorted by pride and rally like Frau Diller, and then there were the scatterings of odd men out, like Alex Steiner, who stood like a human-shaped block of wood, clapping slow and dutiful. And beautiful. Submission. On the footpath, Liesel stood with her papa and Rudy. Hans Hubermann wore a face with the shades pulled down. SOME CRUNCHED NUMBERS In 1933, 90 percent of Germans showed unflinching support for Adolf Hitler. That leaves 10 percent who didnt. Hans Hubermann belonged to the 10 percent. There was a reason for that. In the night, Liesel dreamed like she always did. At first, she saw the brownshirts marching, but soon enough, they led her to a train, and the usual discovery awaited. Her brother was staring again. When she woke up screaming, Liesel knew immediately that on this occasion, something had changed. A smell leaked out from under the sheets, warm and sickly. At first, she tried convincing herself that nothing had happened, but as Papa came closer and held her, she cried and admitted the fact in his ear. Papa, she whispered, Papa, and that was all. He could probably smell it. He lifted her gently from the bed and carried her into the washroom. The moment came a few minutes later. We take the sheets off, Papa said, and when he reached under and pulled at the fabric, something loosened and landed with a thud. A black book with silver writing on it came hurtling out and landed on the floor, between the tall mans feet. He looked down at it. He looked at the girl, who timidly shrugged. Then he read the title, with concentration, aloud: The Grave Diggers Handbook. So thats what its called, Liesel thought. A patch of silence stood among them now. The man, the girl, the book. He picked it up and spoke soft as cotton. A 2 A.M. CONVERSATION Is this yours? Yes, Papa. Do you want to read it? Again, Yes, Papa. A tired smile. Metallic eyes, melting. Well, wed better read it, then. Four years later, when she came to write in the basement, two thoughts struck Liesel about the trauma of wetting the bed. First, she felt extremely lucky that it was Papa who discovered the book. (Fortunately, when the sheets had been washed previously, Rosa had made Liesel strip the bed and make it up. And be quick about it, Saumensch! Does it look like weve got all day?) Second, she was clearly proud of Hans Hubermanns part in her education. You wouldnt think it, she wrote, but it was not so much the school who helped me to read. It was Papa. People think hes not so smart, and its true that he doesnt read too fast, but I would soon learn that words and writing actually saved his life once. Or at least, words and a man who taught him the accordion . . . First things first, Hans Hubermann said that night. He washed the sheets and hung them up. Now, he said upon his return. Lets get this midnight class started. The yellow light was alive with dust. Liesel sat on cold clean sheets, ashamed, elated. The thought of bed-wetting prodded her, but she was going to read. She was going to read the book. The excitement stood up in her. Visions of a ten-year-old reading genius were set alight. If only it was that easy. To tell you the truth, Papa explained upfront, I am not such a good reader myself. But it didnt matter that he read slowly. If anything, it might have helped that his own reading pace was slower than average. Perhaps it would cause less frustration in coping with the girls lack of ability. Still, initially, Hans appeared a little uncomfortable holding the book and looking through it. When he came over and sat next to her on the bed, he leaned back, his legs angling over the side. He examined the book again and dropped it on the blanket. Now why would a nice girl like you want to read such a thing? Again, Liesel shrugged. Had the apprentice been reading the complete works of Goethe or any other such luminary, that was what would have sat in front of them. She attempted to explain. I when . . . It was sitting in the snow, and The soft-spoken words fell off the side of the bed, emptying to the floor like powder. Papa knew what to say, though. He always knew what to say. He ran a hand through his sleepy hair and said, Well, promise me one thing, Liesel. If I die anytime soon, you make sure they bury me right. She nodded, with great sincerity. No skipping chapter six or step four in chapter nine. He laughed, as did the bed wetter. Well, Im glad thats settled. We can get on with it now. He adjusted his position and his bones creaked like itchy floorboards. The fun begins. Amplified by the still of night, the book openeda gust of wind. Looking back, Liesel could tell exactly what her papa was thinking when he scanned the first page of The Grave Diggers Handbook. As he realized the difficulty of the text, he was clearly aware that such a book was hardly ideal. There were words in there that hed have trouble with himself. Not to mention the morbidity of the subject. As for the girl, there was a sudden desire to read it that she didnt even attempt to understand. On some level, perhaps she wanted to make sure her brother was buried right. Whatever the reason, her hunger to read that book was as intense as any ten-year-old human could experience. Chapter one was called The First Step: Choosing the Right Equipment. In a short introductory passage, it outlined the kind of material to be covered in the following twenty pages. Types of shovels, picks, gloves, and so forth were itemized, as well as the vital need to properly maintain them. This grave digging was serious. As Papa flicked through it, he could surely feel Liesels eyes on him. They reached over and gripped him, waiting for something, anything, to slip from his lips. Here. He shifted again and handed her the book. Look at this page and tell me how many words you can read. She looked at itand lied. About half. Read some for me. But of course, she couldnt. When he made her point out any words she could read and actually say them, there were only threethe three main German words for the. The whole page must have had two hundred words on it. This might be harder than I thought. She caught him thinking it, just for a moment. He lifted himself forward, rose to his feet, and walked out. This time, when he came back, he said, Actually, I have a better idea. In his hand, there was a thick painters pencil and a stack of sandpaper. Lets start from scratch. Liesel saw no reason to argue. In the left corner of an upturned piece of sandpaper, he drew a square of perhaps an inch and shoved a capital A inside it. In the other corner, he placed a lowercase one. So far, so good. A, Liesel said. A for what? She smiled. Apfel. He wrote the word in big letters and drew a misshapen apple under it. He was a housepainter, not an artist. When it was complete, he looked over and said, Now for B. As they progressed through the alphabet, Liesels eyes grew larger. She had done this at school, in the kindergarten class, but this time was better. She was the only one there, and she was not gigantic. It was nice to watch Papas hand as he wrote the words and slowly constructed the primitive sketches. Ah, come on, Liesel, he said when she struggled later on. Something that starts with S. Its easy. Im very disappointed in you. She couldnt think. Come on! His whisper played with her. Think of Mama. That was when the word struck her face like a slap. A reflex grin. SAUMENSCH! she shouted, and Papa roared with laughter, then quieted. Shhh, we have to be quiet. But he roared all the same and wrote the word, completing it with one of his sketches. A TYPICAL HANS HUBERMANN ARTWORK THE SMELL OF FRIENDSHIP It continued. Over the next few weeks and into summer, the midnight class began at the end of each nightmare. There were two more bed-wetting occurrences, but Hans Hubermann merely repeated his previous cleanup heroics and got down to the task of reading, sketching, and reciting. In the mornings early hours, quiet voices were loud. On a Thursday, just after 3 p.m., Mama told Liesel to get ready to come with her and deliver some ironing. Papa had other ideas. He walked into the kitchen and said, Sorry, Mama, shes not going with you today. Mama didnt even bother looking up from the washing bag. Who asked you, Arschloch? Come on, Liesel. Shes reading, he said. Papa handed Liesel a steadfast smile and a wink. With me. Im teaching her. Were going to the Amper upstream, where I used to practice the accordion. Now he had her attention. Mama placed the washing on the table and eagerly worked herself up to the appropriate level of cynicism. What did you say? I think you heard me, Rosa. Mama laughed. What the hell could you teach her? A cardboard grin. Uppercut words. Like you could read so much, you Saukerl. The kitchen waited. Papa counterpunched. Well take your ironing for you. You filthy She stopped. The words propped in her mouth as she considered it. Be back before dark. We cant read in the dark, Mama, Liesel said. What was that, Saumensch? Nothing, Mama. Papa grinned and pointed at the girl. Book, sandpaper, pencil, he ordered her, and accordion! once she was already gone. Soon, they were on Himmel Street, carrying the words, the music, the washing. As they walked toward Frau Dillers, they turned around a few times to see if Mama was still at the gate, checking on them. She was. At one point, she called out, Liesel, hold that ironing straight! Dont crease it! Yes, Mama! A few steps later: Liesel, are you dressed warm enough?! What did you say? Saumensch dreckiges, you never hear anything! Are you dressed warm enough? It might get cold later! Around the corner, Papa bent down to do up a shoelace. Liesel, he said, could you roll me a cigarette? Nothing would give her greater pleasure. Once the ironing was delivered, they made their way back to the Amper River, which flanked the town. It worked its way past, pointing in the direction of Dachau, the concentration camp. There was a wooden-planked bridge. They sat maybe thirty meters down from it, in the grass, writing the words and reading them aloud, and when darkness was near, Hans pulled out the accordion. Liesel looked at him and listened, though she did not immediately notice the perplexed expression on her papas face that evening as he played. PAPAS FACE It traveled and wondered, but it disclosed no answers. Not yet. There had been a change in him. A slight shift. She saw it but didnt realize until later, when all the stories came together. She didnt see him watching as he played, having no idea that Hans Hubermanns accordion was a story. In the times ahead, that story would arrive at 33 Himmel Street in the early hours of morning, wearing ruffled shoulders and a shivering jacket. It would carry a suitcase, a book, and two questions. A story. Story after story. Story within story. For now, there was only the one as far as Liesel was concerned, and she was enjoying it. She settled into the long arms of grass, lying back. She closed her eyes and her ears held the notes. There were, of course, some problems as well. A few times, Papa nearly yelled at her. Come on, Liesel, hed say. You know this word; you know it! Just when progress seemed to be flowing well, somehow things would become lodged. When the weather was good, theyd go to the Amper in the afternoon. In bad weather, it was the basement. This was mainly on account of Mama. At first, they tried in the kitchen, but there was no way. Rosa, Hans said to her at one point. Quietly, his words cut through one of her sentences. Could you do me a favor? She looked up from the stove. What? Im asking you, Im begging you, could you please shut your mouth for just five minutes? You can imagine the reaction. They ended up in the basement. There was no lighting there, so they took a kerosene lamp, and slowly, between school and home, from the river to the basement, from the good days to the bad, Liesel was learning to read and write. Soon, Papa told her, youll be able to read that awful graves book with your eyes closed. And I can get out of that midget class. She spoke those words with a grim kind of ownership. In one of their basement sessions, Papa dispensed with the sandpaper (it was running out fast) and pulled out a brush. There were few luxuries in the Hubermann household, but there was an oversupply of paint, and it became more than useful for Liesels learning. Papa would say a word and the girl would have to spell it aloud and then paint it on the wall, as long as she got it right. After a month, the wall was recoated. A fresh cement page. Some nights, after working in the basement, Liesel would sit crouched in the bath and hear the same utterances from the kitchen. You stink, Mama would say to Hans. Like cigarettes and kerosene. Sitting in the water, she imagined the smell of it, mapped out on her papas clothes. More than anything, it was the smell of friendship, and she could find it on herself, too. Liesel loved that smell. She would sniff her arm and smile as the water cooled around her. THE HEAVY WEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE SCHOOL-YARD The summer of 39 was in a hurry, or perhaps Liesel was. She spent her time playing soccer with Rudy and the other kids on Himmel Street (a year-round pastime), taking ironing around town with Mama, and learning words. It felt like it was over a few days after it began. In the latter part of the year, two things happened. SEPTEMBERNOVEMBER 1939 World War Two begins. Liesel Meminger becomes the heavyweight champion of the school yard. The beginning of September. It was a cool day in Molching when the war began and my workload increased. The world talked it over. Newspaper headlines reveled in it. The Fhrers voice roared from German radios. We will not give up. We will not rest. We will be victorious. Our time has come. The German invasion of Poland had begun and people were gathered everywhere, listening to the news of it. Munich Street, like every other main street in Germany, was alive with war. The smell, the voice. Rationing had begun a few days earlierthe writing on the walland now it was official. England and France had made their declaration on Germany. To steal a phrase from Hans Hubermann: The fun begins. The day of the announcement, Papa was lucky enough to have some work. On his way home, he picked up a discarded newspaper, and rather than stopping to shove it between paint cans in his cart, he folded it up and slipped it beneath his shirt. By the time he made it home and removed it, his sweat had drawn the ink onto his skin. The paper landed on the table, but the news was stapled to his chest. A tattoo. Holding the shirt open, he looked down in the unsure kitchen light. What does it say? Liesel asked him. She was looking back and forth, from the black outlines on his skin to the paper. Hitler takes Poland, he answered, and Hans Hubermann slumped into a chair. Deutschland ber Alles, he whispered, and his voice was not remotely patriotic. The face was there againhis accordion face. That was one war started. Liesel would soon be in another. Nearly a month after school resumed, she was moved up to her rightful year level. You might think this was due to her improved reading, but it wasnt. Despite the advancement, she still read with great difficulty. Sentences were strewn everywhere. Words fooled her. The reason she was elevated had more to do with the fact that she became disruptive in the younger class. She answered questions directed to other children and called out. A few times, she was given what was known as a Watschen (pronounced varchen) in the corridor. A DEFINITION Watschen = a good hiding She was taken up, put in a chair at the side, and told to keep her mouth shut by the teacher, who also happened to be a nun. At the other end of the classroom, Rudy looked across and waved. Liesel waved back and tried not to smile. At home, she was well into reading The Grave Diggers Handbook with Papa. They would circle the words she couldnt understand and take them down to the basement the next day. She thought it was enough. It was not enough. Somewhere at the start of November, there were some progress tests at school. One of them was for reading. Every child was made to stand at the front of the room and read from a passage the teacher gave them. It was a frosty morning but bright with sun. Children scrunched their eyes. A halo surrounded the grim reaper nun, Sister Maria. (By the wayI like this human idea of the grim reaper. I like the scythe. It amuses me.) In the sun-heavy classroom, names were rattled off at random. Waldenheim, Lehmann, Steiner. They all stood up and did a reading, all at different levels of capability. Rudy was surprisingly good. Throughout the test, Liesel sat with a mixture of hot anticipation and excruciating fear. She wanted desperately to measure herself, to find out once and for all how her learning was advancing. Was she up to it? Could she even come close to Rudy and the rest of them? Each time Sister Maria looked at her list, a string of nerves tightened in Liesels ribs. It started in her stomach but had worked its way up. Soon, it would be around her neck, thick as rope. When Tommy Mller finished his mediocre attempt, she looked around the room. Everyone had read. She was the only one left. Very good. Sister Maria nodded, perusing the list. Thats everyone. What? No! A voice practically appeared on the other side of the room. Attached to it was a lemon-haired boy whose bony knees knocked in his pants under the desk. He stretched his hand up and said, Sister Maria, I think you forgot Liesel. Sister Maria. Was not impressed. She plonked her folder on the table in front of her and inspected Rudy with sighing disapproval. It was almost melancholic. Why, she lamented, did she have to put up with Rudy Steiner? He simply couldnt keep his mouth shut. Why, God, why? No, she said, with finality. Her small belly leaned forward with the rest of her. Im afraid Liesel cannot do it, Rudy. The teacher looked across, for confirmation. She will read for me later. The girl cleared her throat and spoke with quiet defiance. I can do it now, Sister. The majority of other kids watched in silence. A few of them performed the beautiful childhood art of snickering. The sister had had enough. No, you cannot! . . . What are you doing? For Liesel was out of her chair and walking slowly, stiffly toward the front of the room. She picked up the book and opened it to a random page. All right, then, said Sister Maria. You want to do it? Do it. Yes, Sister. After a quick glance at Rudy, Liesel lowered her eyes and examined the page. When she looked up again, the room was pulled apart, then squashed back together. All the kids were mashed, right before her eyes, and in a moment of brilliance, she imagined herself reading the entire page in faultless, fluency-filled triumph. A KEY WORD Imagined Come on, Liesel! Rudy broke the silence. The book thief looked down again, at the words. Come on. Rudy mouthed it this time. Come on, Liesel. Her blood loudened. The sentences blurred. The white page was suddenly written in another tongue, and it didnt help that tears were now forming in her eyes. She couldnt even see the words anymore. And the sun. That awful sun. It burst through the windowthe glass was everywhereand shone directly onto the useless girl. It shouted in her face. You can steal a book, but you cant read one! It came to her. A solution. Breathing, breathing, she started to read, but not from the book in front of her. It was something from The Grave Diggers Handbook. Chapter three: In the Event of Snow. Shed memorized it from her papas voice. In the event of snow, she spoke, you must make sure you use a good shovel. You must dig deep; you cannot be lazy. You cannot cut corners. Again, she sucked in a large clump of air. Of course, it is easier to wait for the warmest part of the day, when It ended. The book was snatched from her grasp and she was told. Lieselthe corridor. As she was given a small Watschen, she could hear them all laughing in the classroom, between Sister Marias striking hand. She saw them. All those mashed children. Grinning and laughing. Bathed in sunshine. Everyone laughing but Rudy. In the break, she was taunted. A boy named Ludwig Schmeikl came up to her with a book. Hey, Liesel, he said to her, Im having trouble with this word. Could you read it for me? He laugheda ten-year-old, smugness laughter. You Dummkopfyou idiot. Clouds were filing in now, big and clumsy, and more kids were calling out to her, watching her seethe. Dont listen to them, Rudy advised. Easy for you to say. Youre not the stupid one. Nearing the end of the break, the tally of comments stood at nineteen. By the twentieth, she snapped. It was Schmeikl, back for more. Come on, Liesel. He stuck the book under her nose. Help me out, will you? Liesel helped him out, all right. She stood up and took the book from him, and as he smiled over his shoulder at some other kids, she threw it away and kicked him as hard as she could in the vicinity of the groin. Well, as you might imagine, Ludwig Schmeikl certainly buckled, and on the way down, he was punched in the ear. When he landed, he was set upon. When he was set upon, he was slapped and clawed and obliterated by a girl who was utterly consumed with rage. His skin was so warm and soft. Her knuckles and fingernails were so frighteningly tough, despite their smallness. You Saukerl. Her voice, too, was able to scratch him. You Arschloch. Can you spell Arschloch for me? Oh, how the clouds stumbled in and assembled stupidly in the sky. Great obese clouds. Dark and plump. Bumping into each other. Apologizing. Moving on and finding room. Children were there, quick as, well, quick as kids gravitating toward a fight. A stew of arms and legs, of shouts and cheers grew thicker around them. They were watching Liesel Meminger give Ludwig Schmeikl the hiding of a lifetime. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, a girl commentated with a shriek, shes going to kill him! Liesel did not kill him. But she came close. In fact, probably the only thing that stopped her was the twitchingly pathetic, grinning face of Tommy Mller. Still crowded with adrenaline, Liesel caught sight of him smiling with such absurdity that she dragged him down and started beating him up as well. What are you doing?! he wailed, and only then, after the third or fourth slap and a trickle of bright blood from his nose, did she stop. On her knees, she sucked in the air and listened to the groans beneath her. She watched the whirlpool of faces, left and right, and she announced, Im not stupid. No one argued. It was only when everyone moved back inside and Sister Maria saw the state of Ludwig Schmeikl that the fight resumed. First, it was Rudy and a few others who bore the brunt of suspicion. They were always at each other. Hands, each boy was ordered, but every pair was clean. I dont believe this, the sister muttered. It cant be, because sure enough, when Liesel stepped forward to show her hands, Ludwig Schmeikl was all over them, rusting by the moment. The corridor, she stated for the second time that day. For the second time that hour, actually. This time, it was not a small Watschen. It was not an average one. This time, it was the mother of all corridor Watschens, one sting of the stick after another, so that Liesel would barely be able to sit down for a week. And there was no laughter from the room. More the silent fear of listening in. At the end of the school day, Liesel walked home with Rudy and the other Steiner children. Nearing Himmel Street, in a hurry of thoughts, a culmination of misery swept over herthe failed recital of The Grave Diggers Handbook, the demolition of her family, her nightmares, the humiliation of the dayand she crouched in the gutter and wept. It all led here. Rudy stood there, next to her. It began to rain, nice and hard. Kurt Steiner called out, but neither of them moved. One sat painfully now, among the falling chunks of rain, and the other stood next to her, waiting. Why did he have to die? she asked, but still, Rudy did nothing; he said nothing. When finally she finished and stood herself up, he put his arm around her, best-buddy style, and they walked on. There was no request for a kiss. Nothing like that. You can love Rudy for that, if you like. Just dont kick me in the eggs. Thats what he was thinking, but he didnt tell Liesel that. It was nearly four years later that he offered that information. For now, Rudy and Liesel made their way onto Himmel Street in the rain. He was the crazy one who had painted himself black and defeated the world. She was the book thief without the words. Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like the rain. PART TWO the shoulder shrug featuring: a girl made of darknessthe joy of cigarettes a town walkersome dead lettershitlers birthday 100 percent pure german sweatthe gates of thievery and a book of fire A GIRL MADE OF DARKNESS SOME STATISTICAL INFORMATION First stolen book: January 13, 1939 Second stolen book: April 20, 1940 Duration between said stolen books: 463 days If you were being flippant about it, youd say that all it took was a little bit of fire, really, and some human shouting to go with it. Youd say that was all Liesel Meminger needed to apprehend her second stolen book, even if it smoked in her hands. Even if it lit her ribs. The problem, however, is this: This is no time to be flippant. Its no time to be half watching, turning around, or checking the stovebecause when the book thief stole her second book, not only were there many factors involved in her hunger to do so, but the act of stealing it triggered the crux of what was to come. It would provide her with a venue for continued book thievery. It would inspire Hans Hubermann to come up with a plan to help the Jewish fist fighter. And it would show me, once again, that one opportunity leads directly to another, just as risk leads to more risk, life to more life, and death to more death. In a way, it was destiny. You see, people may tell you that Nazi Germany was built on anti-Semitism, a somewhat overzealous leader, and a nation of hate-fed bigots, but it would all have come to nothing had the Germans not loved one particular activity: To burn. The Germans loved to burn things. Shops, synagogues, Reichstags, houses, personal items, slain people, and of course, books. They enjoyed a good book-burning, all rightwhich gave people who were partial to books the opportunity to get their hands on certain publications that they otherwise wouldnt have. One person who was that way inclined, as we know, was a thin-boned girl named Liesel Meminger. She may have waited 463 days, but it was worth it. At the end of an afternoon that had contained much excitement, much beautiful evil, one blood-soaked ankle, and a slap from a trusted hand, Liesel Meminger attained her second success story. The Shoulder Shrug. It was a blue book with red writing engraved on the cover, and there was a small picture of a cuckoo bird under the title, also red. 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 had fueled her desire to steal it. In fact, on April 20the Fhrers birthdaywhen she snatched that book from beneath a steaming heap of ashes, Liesel was a girl made of darkness. The question, of course, should be why? What was there to be angry about? What had happened in the past four or five months to culminate in such a feeling? In short, the answer traveled from Himmel Street, to the Fhrer, to the unfindable location of her real mother, and back again. Like most misery, it started with apparent happiness. THE JOY OF CIGARETTES Toward the end of 1939, Liesel had settled into life in Molching pretty well. She still had nightmares about her brother and missed her mother, but there were comforts now, too. She loved her papa, Hans Hubermann, and even her foster mother, despite the abusages and verbal assaults. She loved and hated her best friend, Rudy Steiner, which was perfectly normal. And she loved the fact that despite her failure in the classroom, her reading and writing were definitely improving and would soon be on the verge of something respectable. All of this resulted in at least some form of contentment and would soon be built upon to approach the concept of Being Happy. THE KEYS TO HAPPINESS Finishing The Grave Diggers Handbook. Escaping the ire of Sister Maria. Receiving two books for Christmas. December 17. She remembered the date well, as it was exactly a week before Christmas. As usual, her nightly nightmare interrupted her sleep and she was woken by Hans Hubermann. His hand held the sweaty fabric of her pajamas. The train? he whispered. Liesel confirmed. The train. She gulped the air until she was ready, and they began reading from the eleventh chapter of The Grave Diggers Handbook. Just past three oclock, they finished it, and only the final chapter, Respecting the Graveyard, remained. Papa, his silver eyes swollen in their tiredness and his face awash with whiskers, shut the book and expected the leftovers of his sleep. He didnt get them. The light was out for barely a minute when Liesel spoke to him across the dark. Papa? He made only a noise, somewhere in his throat. Are you awake, Papa? Ja. Up on one elbow. Can we finish the book, please? There was a long breath, the scratchery of hand on whiskers, and then the light. He opened the book and began. Chapter Twelve: Respecting the Graveyard. They read through the early hours of morning, circling and writing the words she did not comprehend and turning the pages toward daylight. A few times, Papa nearly slept, succumbing to the itchy fatigue in his eyes and the wilting of his head. Liesel caught him out on each occasion, but she had neither the selflessness to allow him to sleep nor the hide to be offended. She was a girl with a mountain to climb. Eventually, as the darkness outside began to break up a little, they finished. The last passage looked like this: We at the Bayern Cemetery Association hope that we have informedand entertained you in the workings, safety measures, and duties of grave digging. We wish you every success with your career in the funerary arts and hope this book has helped in some way. When the book closed, they shared a sideways glance. Papa spoke. We made it, huh? Liesel, half-wrapped in blanket, studied the black book in her hand and its silver lettering. She nodded, dry-mouthed and early-morning hungry. It was one of those moments of perfect tiredness, of having conquered not only the work at hand, but the night who had blocked the way. Papa stretched with his fists closed and his eyes grinding shut, and it was a morning that didnt dare to be rainy. They each stood and walked to the kitchen, and through the fog and frost of the window, they were able to see the pink bars of light on the snowy banks of Himmel Streets rooftops. Look at the colors, Papa said. Its hard not to like a man who not only notices the colors, but speaks them. Liesel still held the book. She gripped it tighter as the snow turned orange. On one of the rooftops, she could see a small boy, sitting, looking at the sky. His name was Werner, she mentioned. The words trotted out, involuntarily. Papa said, Yes. At school during that time, there had been no more reading tests, but as Liesel slowly gathered confidence, she did pick up a stray textbook before class one morning to see if she could read it without trouble. She could read every word, but she remained stranded at a much slower pace than that of her classmates. Its much easier, she realized, to be on the verge of something than to actually be it. This would still take time. One afternoon, she was tempted to steal a book from the class bookshelf, but frankly, the prospect of another corridor Watschen at the hands of Sister Maria was a powerful enough deterrent. On top of that, there was actually no real desire in her to take the books from school. It was most likely the intensity of her November failure that caused this lack of interest, but Liesel wasnt sure. She only knew that it was there. In class, she did not speak. She didnt so much as look the wrong way. As winter set in, she was no longer a victim of Sister Marias frustrations, preferring to watch as others were marched out to the corridor and given their just rewards. The sound of another student struggling in the hallway was not particularly enjoyable, but the fact that it was someone else was, if not a true comfort, a relief. When school broke up briefly for Weihnachten, Liesel even afforded Sister Maria a merry Christmas before going on her way. Knowing that the Hubermanns were essentially broke, still paying off debts and paying rent quicker than the money could come in, she was not expecting a gift of any sort. Perhaps only some better food. To her surprise, on Christmas Eve, after sitting in church at midnight with Mama, Papa, Hans Junior, and Trudy, she came home to find something wrapped in newspaper under the Christmas tree. From Saint Niklaus, Papa said, but the girl was not fooled. She hugged both her foster parents, with snow still laid across her shoulders. Unfurling the paper, she unwrapped two small books. The first one, Faust the Dog, was written by a man named Mattheus Ottleberg. All told, she would read that book thirteen times. On Christmas Eve, she read the first twenty pages at the kitchen table while Papa and Hans Junior argued about a thing she did not understand. Something called politics. Later, they read some more in bed, adhering to the tradition of circling the words she didnt know and writing them down. Faust the Dog also had pictureslovely curves and ears and caricatures of a German Shepherd with an obscene drooling problem and the ability to talk. The second book was called The Lighthouse and was written by a woman, Ingrid Rippinstein. That particular book was a little longer, so Liesel was able to get through it only nine times, her pace increasing ever so slightly by the end of such prolific readings. It was a few days after Christmas that she asked a question regarding the books. They were eating in the kitchen. Looking at the spoonfuls of pea soup entering Mamas mouth, she decided to shift her focus to Papa. Theres something I need to ask. At first, there was nothing. And? It was Mama, her mouth still half full. I just wanted to know how you found the money to buy my books. A short grin was smiled into Papas spoon. You really want to know? Of course. From his pocket, Papa took what was left of his tobacco ration and began rolling a cigarette, at which Liesel became impatient. Are you going to tell me or not? Papa laughed. But I am telling you, child. He completed the production of one cigarette, flipped it on the table, and began on another. Just like this. That was when Mama finished her soup with a clank, suppressed a cardboard burp, and answered for him. That Saukerl, she said. You know what he did? He rolled up all of his filthy cigarettes, went to the market when it was in town, and traded them with some gypsy. Eight cigarettes per book. Papa shoved one to his mouth, in triumph. He lit up and took in the smoke. Praise the Lord for cigarettes, huh, Mama? Mama only handed him one of her trademark looks of disgust, followed by the most common ration of her vocabulary. Saukerl. Liesel swapped a customary wink with her papa and finished eating her soup. As always, one of her books was next to her. She could not deny that the answer to her question had been more than satisfactory. There were not many people who could say that their education had been paid for with cigarettes. Mama, on the other hand, said that if Hans Hubermann was any good at all, he would trade some tobacco for the new dress she was in desperate need of or some better shoes. But no . . . She emptied the words out into the sink. When it comes to me, youd rather smoke a whole ration, wouldnt you? Plus some of next doors. A few nights later, however, Hans Hubermann came home with a box of eggs. Sorry, Mama. He placed them on the table. They were all out of shoes. Mama didnt complain. She even sang to herself while she cooked those eggs to the brink of burndom. It appeared that there was great joy in cigarettes, and it was a happy time in the Hubermann household. It ended a few weeks later. THE TOWN WALKER The rot started with the washing and it rapidly increased. When Liesel accompanied Rosa Hubermann on her deliveries across Molching, one of her customers, Ernst Vogel, informed them that he could no longer afford to have his washing and ironing done. The times, he excused himself, what can I say? Theyre getting harder. The wars making things tight. He looked at the girl. Im sure you get an allowance for keeping the little one, dont you? To Liesels dismay, Mama was speechless. An empty bag was at her side. Come on, Liesel. It was not said. It was pulled along, rough-handed. Vogel called out from his front step. He was perhaps five foot nine and his greasy scraps of hair swung lifelessly across his forehead. Im sorry, Frau Hubermann! Liesel waved at him. He waved back. Mama castigated. Dont wave to that Arschloch, she said. Now hurry up. That night, when Liesel had a bath, Mama scrubbed her especially hard, muttering the whole time about that Vogel Saukerl and imitating him at two-minute intervals. You must get an allowance for the girl. . . . She berated Liesels naked chest as she scrubbed away. Youre not worth that much, Saumensch. Youre not making me rich, you know. Liesel sat there and took it. Not more than a week after that particular incident, Rosa hauled her into the kitchen. Right, Liesel. She sat her down at the table. Since you spend half your time on the street playing soccer, you can make yourself useful out there. For a change. Liesel watched only her own hands. What is it, Mama? From now on youre going to pick up and deliver the washing for me. Those rich people are less likely to fire us if youre the one standing in front of them. If they ask you where I am, tell them Im sick. And look sad when you tell them. Youre skinny and pale enough to get their pity. Herr Vogel didnt pity me. Well . . . Her agitation was obvious. The others might. So dont argue. Yes, Mama. For a moment, it appeared that her foster mother would comfort her or pat her on the shoulder. Good girl, Liesel. Good girl. Pat, pat, pat. She did no such thing. Instead, Rosa Hubermann stood up, selected a wooden spoon, and held it under Liesels nose. It was a necessity as far as she was concerned. When youre out on that street, you take the bag to each place and you bring it straight home, with the money, even though its next to nothing. No going to Papa if hes actually working for once. No mucking around with that little Saukerl, Rudy Steiner. Straight. Home. Yes, Mama. And when you hold that bag, you hold it properly. You dont swing it, drop it, crease it, or throw it over your shoulder. Yes, Mama. Yes, Mama. Rosa Hubermann was a great imitator, and a fervent one. Youd better not, Saumensch. Ill find out if you do; you know that, dont you? Yes, Mama. Saying those two words was often the best way to survive, as was doing what she was told, and from there, Liesel walked the streets of Molching, from the poor end to the rich, picking up and delivering the washing. At first, it was a solitary job, which she never complained about. After all, the very first time she took the sack through town, she turned the corner onto Munich Street, looked both ways, and gave it one enormous swinga whole revolutionand then checked the contents inside. Thankfully, there were no creases. No wrinkles. Just a smile, and a promise never to swing it again. Overall, Liesel enjoyed it. There was no share of the pay, but she was out of the house, and walking the streets without Mama was heaven in itself. No finger-pointing or cursing. No people staring at them as she was sworn at for holding the bag wrong. Nothing but serenity. She came to like the people, too: The Pfaffelhrvers, inspecting the clothes and saying, Ja, ja, sehr gut, sehr gut. Liesel imagined that they did everything twice. Gentle Helena Schmidt, handing the money over with an arthritic curl of the hand. The Weingartners, whose bent-whiskered cat always answered the door with them. Little Goebbels, thats what they called him, after Hitlers right-hand man. And Frau Hermann, the mayors wife, standing fluffy-haired and shivery in her enormous, cold-aired doorway. Always silent. Always alone. No words, not once. Sometimes Rudy came along. How much money do you have there? he asked one afternoon. It was nearly dark and they were walking onto Himmel Street, past the shop. Youve heard about Frau Diller, havent you? They say shes got candy hidden somewhere, and for the right price . . . Dont even think about it. Liesel, as always, was gripping the money hard. Its not so bad for youyou dont have to face my mama. Rudy shrugged. It was worth a try. In the middle of January, schoolwork turned its attention to letter writing. After learning the basics, each student was to write two letters, one to a friend and one to somebody in another class. Liesels letter from Rudy went like this: Dear Saumensch, Are you still as useless at soccer as you were the last time we played? I hope so. That means I can run past you again just like Jesse Owens at the Olympics. . . . When Sister Maria found it, she asked him a question, very amiably. SISTER MARIAS OFFER Do you feel like visiting the corridor, Mr. Steiner? Needless to say, Rudy answered in the negative, and the paper was torn up and he started again. The second attempt was written to someone named Liesel and inquired as to what her hobbies might be. At home, while completing a letter for homework, Liesel decided that writing to Rudy or some other Saukerl was actually ridiculous. It meant nothing. As she wrote in the basement, she spoke over to Papa, who was repainting the wall again. Both he and the paint fumes turned around. Was wuistz? Now this was the roughest form of German a person could speak, but it was spoken with an air of absolute pleasantness. Yeah, what? Would I be able to write a letter to Mama? A pause. What do you want to write a letter to her for? You have to put up with her every day. Papa was schmunzelinga sly smile. Isnt that bad enough? Not that mama. She swallowed. Oh. Papa returned to the wall and continued painting. Well, I guess so. You could send it to whats-her-namethe one who brought you here and visited those few timesfrom the foster people. Frau Heinrich. Thats right. Send it to her. Maybe she can send it on to your mother. Even at the time, he sounded unconvincing, as if he wasnt telling Liesel something. Word of her mother had also been tight-lipped on Frau Heinrichs brief visits. Instead of asking him what was wrong, Liesel began writing immediately, choosing to ignore the sense of foreboding that was quick to accumulate inside her. It took three hours and six drafts to perfect the letter, telling her mother all about Molching, her papa and his accordion, the strange but true ways of Rudy Steiner, and the exploits of Rosa Hubermann. She also explained how proud she was that she could now read and write a little. The next day, she posted it at Frau Dillers with a stamp from the kitchen drawer. And she began to wait. The night she wrote the letter, she overheard a conversation between Hans and Rosa. Whats she doing writing to her mother? Mama was saying. Her voice was surprisingly calm and caring. As you can imagine, this worried the girl a great deal. Shed have preferred to hear them arguing. Whispering adults hardly inspired confidence. She asked me, Papa answered, and I couldnt say no. How could I? Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Again with the whisper. She should just forget her. Who knows where she is? Who knows what theyve done to her? In bed, Liesel hugged herself tight. She balled herself up. She thought of her mother and repeated Rosa Hubermanns questions. Where was she? What had they done to her? And once and for all, who, in actual fact, were they? DEAD LETTERS Flash forward to the basement, September 1943. A fourteen-year-old girl is writing in a small dark-covered book. She is bony but strong and has seen many things. Papa sits with the accordion at his feet. He says, You know, Liesel? I nearly wrote you a reply and signed your mothers name. He scratches his leg, where the plaster used to be. But I couldnt. I couldnt bring myself. Several times, through the remainder of January and the entirety of February 1940, when Liesel searched the mailbox for a reply to her letter, it clearly broke her foster fathers heart. Im sorry, he would tell her. Not today, huh? In hindsight, she saw that the whole exercise had been pointless. Had her mother been in a position to do so, she would have already made contact with the foster care people, or directly with the girl, or the Hubermanns. But there had been nothing. To lend insult to injury, in mid-February, Liesel was given a letter from another ironing customer, the Pfaffelhrvers, from Heide Strasse. The pair of them stood with great tallness in the doorway, giving her a melancholic regard. For your mama, the man said, handing her the envelope. Tell her were sorry. Tell her were sorry. That was not a good night in the Hubermann residence. Even when Liesel retreated to the basement to write her fifth letter to her mother (all but the first one yet to be sent), she could hear Rosa swearing and carrying on about those Pfaffelhrver Arschlcher and that lousy Ernst Vogel. Feuer sollns brunzen fr einen Monat! she heard her call out. Translation: They should all piss fire for a month! Liesel wrote. When her birthday came around, there was no gift. There was no gift because there was no money, and at the time, Papa was out of tobacco. I told you. Mama pointed a finger at him. I told you not to give her both books at Christmas. But no. Did you listen? Of course not! I know! He turned quietly to the girl. Im sorry, Liesel. We just cant afford it. Liesel didnt mind. She didnt whine or moan or stamp her feet. She simply swallowed the disappointment and decided on one calculated riska present from herself. She would gather all of the accrued letters to her mother, stuff them into one envelope, and use just a tiny portion of the washing and ironing money to mail it. Then, of course, she would take the Watschen, most likely in the kitchen, and she would not make a sound. Three days later, the plan came to fruition. Some of its missing. Mama counted the money a fourth time, with Liesel over at the stove. It was warm there and it cooked the fast flow of her blood. What happened, Liesel? She lied. They must have given me less than usual. Did you count it? She broke. I spent it, Mama. Rosa came closer. This was not a good sign. She was very close to the wooden spoons. You what? Before she could answer, the wooden spoon came down on Liesel Memingers body like the gait of God. Red marks like footprints, and they burned. From the floor, when it was over, the girl actually looked up and explained. There was pulse and yellow light, all together. Her eyes blinked. I mailed my letters. What came to her then was the dustiness of the floor, the feeling that her clothes were more next to her than on her, and the sudden realization that this would all be for nothingthat her mother would never write back and she would never see her again. The reality of this gave her a second Watschen. It stung her, and it did not stop for many minutes. Above her, Rosa appeared to be smudged, but she soon clarified as her cardboard face loomed closer. Dejected, she stood there in all her plumpness, holding the wooden spoon at her side like a club. She reached down and leaked a little. Im sorry, Liesel. Liesel knew her well enough to understand that it was not for the hiding. The red marks grew larger, in patches on her skin, as she lay there, in the dust and the dirt and the dim light. Her breathing calmed, and a stray yellow tear trickled down her face. She could feel herself against the floor. A forearm, a knee. An elbow. A cheek. A calf muscle. The floor was cold, especially against her cheek, but she was unable to move. She would never see her mother again. For nearly an hour, she remained, spread out under the kitchen table, till Papa came home and played the accordion. Only then did she sit up and start to recover. When she wrote about that night, she held no animosity toward Rosa Hubermann at all, or toward her mother for that matter. To her, they were only victims of circumstance. The only thought that continually recurred was the yellow tear. Had it been dark, she realized, that tear would have been black. But it was dark, she told herself. No matter how many times she tried to imagine that scene with the yellow light that she knew had been there, she had to struggle to visualize it. She was beaten in the dark, and she had remained there, on a cold, dark kitchen floor. Even Papas music was the color of darkness. Even Papas music. The strange thing was that she was vaguely comforted by that thought, rather than distressed by it. The dark, the light. What was the difference? Nightmares had reinforced themselves in each, as the book thief began to truly understand how things were and how they would always be. If nothing else, she could prepare herself. Perhaps thats why on the Fhrer s birthday, when the answer to the question of her mothers suffering showed itself completely, she was able to react, despite her perplexity and her rage. Liesel Meminger was ready. Happy birthday, Herr Hitler. Many happy returns. HITLERS BIRTHDAY, 1940 Against all hopelessness, Liesel still checked the mailbox each afternoon, throughout March and well into April. This was despite a Hans-requested visit from Frau Heinrich, who explained to the Hubermanns that the foster care office had lost contact completely with Paula Meminger. Still, the girl persisted, and as you might expect, each day, when she searched the mail, there was nothing. Molching, like the rest of Germany, was in the grip of preparing for Hitlers birthday. This particular year, with the development of the war and Hitlers current victorious position, the Nazi partisans of Molching wanted the celebration to be especially befitting. There would be a parade. Marching. Music. Singing. There would be a fire. While Liesel walked the streets of Molching, picking up and delivering washing and ironing, Nazi Party members were accumulating fuel. A couple of times, Liesel was a witness to men and women knocking on doors, asking people if they had any material that they felt should be done away with or destroyed. Papas copy of the Molching Express announced that there would be a celebratory fire in the town square, which would be attended by all local Hitler Youth divisions. It would commemorate not only the Fhrers birthday, but the victory over his enemies and over the restraints that had held Germany back since the end of World War I. Any materials, it requested, from such timesnewspapers, posters, books, flagsand any found propaganda of our enemies should be brought forward to the Nazi Party office on Munich Street. Even Schiller Strassethe road of yellow starswhich was still awaiting its renovation, was ransacked one last time, to find something, anything, to burn in the name of the Fhrers glory. It would have come as no surprise if certain members of the party had gone away and published a thousand or so books or posters of poisonous moral matter simply to incinerate them. Everything was in place to make April 20 magnificent. It would be a day full of burning and cheering. And book thievery. In the Hubermann household that morning, all was typical. That Saukerl s looking out the window again, cursed Rosa Hubermann. Every day, she went on. What are you looking at this time? Ohhh, moaned Papa with delight. The flag cloaked his back from the top of the window. You should have a look at this woman I can see. He glanced over his shoulder and grinned at Liesel. I might just go and run after her. She leaves you for dead, Mama. Schwein! She shook the wooden spoon at him. Papa continued looking out the window, at an imaginary woman and a very real corridor of German flags. On the streets of Molching that day, each window was decorated for the Fhrer. In some places, like Frau Dillers, the glass was vigorously washed, and the swastika looked like a jewel on a red-and-white blanket. In others, the flag trundled from the ledge like washing hung out to dry. But it was there. Earlier, there had been a minor calamity. The Hubermanns couldnt find their flag. Theyll come for us, Mama warned her husband. Theyll come and take us away. They. We have to find it! At one point, it seemed like Papa might have to go down to the basement and paint a flag on one of his drop sheets. Thankfully, it turned up, buried behind the accordion in the cupboard. That infernal accordion, it was blocking my view! Mama swiveled. Liesel! The girl had the honor of pinning the flag to the window frame. Hans Junior and Trudy came home for the afternoon eating, like they did at Christmas or Easter. Now seems like a good time to introduce them a little more comprehensively: Hans Junior had the eyes of his father and the height. The silver in his eyes, however, wasnt warm, like Papastheyd been Fhrer ed. There was more flesh on his bones, too, and he had prickly blond hair and skin like off-white paint. Trudy, or Trudel, as she was often known, was only a few inches taller than Mama. She had cloned Rosa Hubermanns unfortunate, waddlesome walking style, but the rest of her was much milder. Being a live-in housemaid in a wealthy part of Munich, she was most likely bored of children, but she was always capable of at least a few smiled words in Liesels direction. She had soft lips. A quiet voice. They came home together on the train from Munich, and it didnt take long for old tensions to rise up. A SHORT HISTORY OF HANS HUBERMANN VS. HIS SON The young man was a Nazi; his father was not. In the opinion of Hans Junior, his father was part of an old, decrepit Germany one that allowed everyone else to take it for the proverbial ride while its own people suffered. As a teenager, he was aware that his father had been called Der Fuden Maler the Jew painterfor painting Jewish houses. Then came an incident Ill fully present to you soon enoughthe day Hans blew it, on the verge of joining the party. Everyone knew you werent supposed to paint over slurs written on a Jewish shop front. Such behavior was bad for Germany, and it was bad for the transgressor. So have they let you in yet? Hans Junior was picking up where theyd left off at Christmas. In what? Take a guessthe party. No, I think theyve forgotten about me. Well, have you even tried again? You cant just sit around waiting for the new world to take it with you. You have to go out and be part of itdespite your past mistakes. Papa looked up. Mistakes? Ive made many mistakes in my life, but not joining the Nazi Party isnt one of them. They still have my applicationyou know thatbut I couldnt go back to ask. I just . . . That was when a great shiver arrived. It waltzed through the window with the draft. Perhaps it was the breeze of the Third Reich, gathering even greater strength. Or maybe it was just Europe again, breathing. Either way, it fell across them as their metallic eyes clashed like tin cans in the kitchen. Youve never cared about this country, said Hans Junior. Not enough, anyway. Papas eyes started corroding. It did not stop Hans Junior. He looked now for some reason at the girl. With her three books standing upright on the table, as if in conversation, Liesel was silently mouthing the words as she read from one of them. And what trash is this girl reading? She should be reading Mein Kampf. Liesel looked up. Dont worry, Liesel, Papa said. Just keep reading. He doesnt know what hes saying. But Hans Junior wasnt finished. He stepped closer and said, Youre either for the Fhrer or against himand I can see that youre against him. You always have been. Liesel watched Hans Junior in the face, fixated on the thinness of his lips and the rocky line of his bottom teeth. Its pathetichow a man can stand by and do nothing as a whole nation cleans out the garbage and makes itself great. Trudy and Mama sat silently, scaredly, as did Liesel. There was the smell of pea soup, something burning, and confrontation. They were all waiting for the next words. They came from the son. Just two of them. You coward. He upturned them into Papas face, and he promptly left the kitchen, and the house. Ignoring futility, Papa walked to the doorway and called out to his son. Coward? Im the coward?! He then rushed to the gate and ran pleadingly after him. Mama hurried to the window, ripped away the flag, and opened up. She, Trudy, and Liesel all crowded together, watching a father catch up to his son and grab hold of him, begging him to stop. They could hear nothing, but the manner in which Hans Junior shrugged loose was loud enough. The sight of Papa watching him walk away roared at them from up the street. Hansi! Mama finally cried out. Both Trudy and Liesel flinched from her voice. Come back! The boy was gone. Yes, the boy was gone, and I wish I could tell you that everything worked out for the younger Hans Hubermann, but it didnt. When he vanished from Himmel Street that day in the name of the Fhrer, he would hurtle through the events of another story, each step leading tragically to Russia. To Stalingrad. SOME FACTS ABOUT STALINGRAD In 1942 and early 43, in that city, the sky was bleached bedsheet-white each morning. All day long, as I carried the souls across it, that sheet was splashed with blood, until it was full and bulging to the earth. In the evening, it would be wrung out and bleached again, ready for the next dawn. And that was when the fighting was only during the day. With his son gone, Hans Hubermann stood for a few moments longer. The street looked so big. When he reappeared inside, Mama fixed her gaze on him, but no words were exchanged. She didnt admonish him at all, which, as you know, was highly unusual. Perhaps she decided he was injured enough, having been labeled a coward by his only son. For a while, he remained silently at the table after the eating was finished. Was he really a coward, as his son had so brutally pointed out? Certainly, in World War I, he considered himself one. He attributed his survival to it. But then, is there cowardice in the acknowledgment of fear? Is there cowardice in being glad that you lived? His thoughts crisscrossed the table as he stared into it. Papa? Liesel asked, but he did not look at her. What was he talking about? What did he mean when . . . Nothing, Papa answered. He spoke quiet and calm, to the table. Its nothing. Forget about him, Liesel. It took perhaps a minute for him to speak again. Shouldnt you be getting ready? He looked at her this time. Dont you have a bonfire to go to? Yes, Papa. The book thief went and changed into her Hitler Youth uniform, and half an hour later, they left, walking to the BDM headquarters. From there, the children would be taken to the town square in their groups. Speeches would be made. A fire would be lit. A book would be stolen. 100 PERCENT PURE GERMAN SWEAT People lined the streets as the youth of Germany marched toward the town hall and the square. On quite a few occasions Liesel forgot about her mother and any other problem of which she currently held ownership. There was a swell in her chest as the people clapped them on. Some kids waved to their parents, but only brieflyit was an explicit instruction that they march straight and dont look or wave to the crowd. When Rudys group came into the square and was instructed to halt, there was a discrepancy. Tommy Mller. The rest of the regiment stopped marching and Tommy plowed directly into the boy in front of him. Dummkopf ! the boy spat before turning around. Im sorry, said Tommy, arms held apologetically out. His face tripped over itself. I couldnt hear. It was only a small moment, but it was also a preview of troubles to come. For Tommy. For Rudy. At the end of the marching, the Hitler Youth divisions were allowed to disperse. It would have been near impossible to keep them all together as the bonfire burned in their eyes and excited them. Together, they cried one united heil Hitler and were free to wander. Liesel looked for Rudy, but once the crowd of children scattered, she was caught inside a mess of uniforms and high-pitched words. Kids calling out to other kids. By four-thirty, the air had cooled considerably. People joked that they needed warming up. Thats all this trash is good for anyway. Carts were used to wheel it all in. It was dumped in the middle of the town square and dowsed with something sweet. Books and paper and other material would slide or tumble down, only to be thrown back onto the pile. From further away, it looked like something volcanic. Or something grotesque and alien that had somehow landed miraculously in the middle of town and needed to be snuffed out, and fast. The applied smell leaned toward the crowd, who were kept at a good distance. There were well in excess of a thousand people, on the ground, on the town hall steps, on the rooftops that surrounded the square. When Liesel tried to make her way through, a crackling sound prompted her to think that the fire had already begun. It hadnt. The sound was kinetic humans, flowing, charging up. Theyve started without me! Although something inside told her that this was a crimeafter all, her three books were the most precious items she ownedshe was compelled to see the thing lit. She couldnt help it. I guess humans like to watch a little destruction. Sand castles, houses of cards, thats where they begin. Their great skill is their capacity to escalate. The thought of missing it was eased when she found a gap in the bodies and was able to see the mound of guilt, still intact. It was prodded and splashed, even spat on. It reminded her of an unpopular child, forlorn and bewildered, powerless to alter its fate. No one liked it. Head down. Hands in pockets. Forever. Amen. Bits and pieces continued falling to its sides as Liesel hunted for Rudy. Where is that Saukerl? When she looked up, the sky was crouching. A horizon of Nazi flags and uniforms rose upward, crippling her view every time she attempted to see over a smaller childs head. It was pointless. The crowd was itself. There was no swaying it, squeezing through, or reasoning with it. You breathed with it and you sang its songs. You waited for its fire. Silence was requested by a man on a podium. His uniform was shiny brown. The iron was practically still on it. The silence began. His first words: Heil Hitler! His first action: the salute to the Fhrer. Today is a beautiful day, he continued. Not only is it our great leaders birthdaybut we also stop our enemies once again. We stop them reaching into our minds. . . . Liesel still attempted to fight her way through. We put an end to the disease that has been spread through Germany for the last twenty years, if not more! He was performing now what is called a Schreiereia consummate exhibition of passionate shoutingwarning the crowd to be watchful, to be vigilant, to seek out and destroy the evil machinations plotting to infect the mother-land with its deplorable ways. The immoral! The Kommunisten ! That word again. That old word. Dark rooms. Suit-wearing men. Die Judenthe Jews! Halfway through the speech, Liesel surrendered. As the word communist seized her, the remainder of the Nazi recital swept by, either side, lost somewhere in the German feet around her. Waterfalls of words. A girl treading water. She thought it again. Kommunisten. Up until now, at the BDM, they had been told that Germany was the superior race, but no one else in particular had been mentioned. Of course, everyone knew about the Jews, as they were the main offenderin regard to violating the German ideal. Not once, however, had the communists been mentioned until today, regardless of the fact that people of such political creed were also to be punished. She had to get out. In front of her, a head with parted blond hair and pigtails sat absolutely still on its shoulders. Staring into it, Liesel revisited those dark rooms of her past and her mother answering questions made up of one word. She saw it all so clearly. Her starving mother, her missing father. Kommunisten. Her dead brother. And now we say goodbye to this trash, this poison. Just before Liesel Meminger pivoted with nausea to exit the crowd, the shiny, brown-shirted creature walked from the podium. He received a torch from an accomplice and lit the mound, which dwarfed him in all its culpability. Heil Hitler! The audience: Heil Hitler! A collection of men walked from a platform and surrounded the heap, igniting it, much to the approval of everyone. Voices climbed over shoulders and the smell of pure German sweat struggled at first, then poured out. It rounded corner after corner, till they were all swimming in it. The words, the sweat. And smiling. Lets not forget the smiling. Many jocular comments followed, as did another onslaught of heil Hitlering. You know, it actually makes me wonder if anyone ever lost an eye or injured a hand or wrist with all of that. Youd only need to be facing the wrong way at the wrong time or stand marginally too close to another person. Perhaps people did get injured. Personally, I can only tell you that no one died from it, or at least, not physically. There was, of course, the matter of forty million people I picked up by the time the whole thing was finished, but thats getting all metaphoric. Allow me to return us to the fire. The orange flames waved at the crowd as paper and print dissolved inside them. Burning words were torn from their sentences. On the other side, beyond the blurry heat, it was possible to see the brownshirts and swastikas joining hands. You didnt see people. Only uniforms and signs. Birds above did laps. They circled, somehow attracted to the glowuntil they came too close to the heat. Or was it the humans? Certainly, the heat was nothing. In her attempt to escape, a voice found her. Liesel! It made its way through and she recognized it. It was not Rudy, but she knew that voice. She twisted free and found the face attached to it. Oh, no. Ludwig Schmeikl. He did not, as she expected, sneer or joke or make any conversation at all. All he was able to do was pull her toward him and motion to his ankle. It had been crushed among the excitement and was bleeding dark and ominous through his sock. His face wore a helpless expression beneath his tangled blond hair. An animal. Not a deer in lights. Nothing so typical or specific. He was just an animal, hurt among the melee of its own kind, soon to be trampled by it. Somehow, she helped him up and dragged him toward the back. Fresh air. They staggered to the steps at the side of the church. There was some room there and they rested, both relieved. Breath collapsed from Schmeikls mouth. It slipped down, over his throat. He managed to speak. Sitting down, he held his ankle and found Liesel Memingers face. Thanks, he said, to her mouth rather than her eyes. More slabs of breath. And . . . They both watched images of school-yard antics, followed by a school-yard beating. Im sorryfor, you know. Liesel heard it again. Kommunisten. She chose, however, to focus on Ludwig Schmeikl. Me too. They both concentrated on breathing then, for there was nothing more to do or say. Their business had come to an end. The blood enlarged on Ludwig Schmeikls ankle. A single word leaned against the girl. To their left, flames and burning books were cheered like heroes. THE GATES OF THIEVERY She remained on the steps, waiting for Papa, watching the stray ash and the corpse of collected books. Everything was sad. Orange and red embers looked like rejected candy, and most of the crowd had vanished. Shed seen Frau Diller leave (very satisfied) and Pfiffikus (white hair, a Nazi uniform, the same dilapidated shoes, and a triumphant whistle). Now there was nothing but cleaning up, and soon, no one would even imagine it had happened. But you could smell it. What are you doing? Hans Hubermann arrived at the church steps. Hi, Papa. You were supposed to be in front of the town hall. Sorry, Papa. He sat down next to her, halving his tallness on the concrete and taking a piece of Liesels hair. His fingers adjusted it gently behind her ear. Liesel, whats wrong? For a while, she said nothing. She was making calculations, despite already knowing. An eleven-year-old girl is many things, but she is not stupid. A SMALL ADDITION The word communist a large bonfire a collection of dead letters the suffering of her mother the death of her brother = the Fhrer The Fhrer. He was the they that Hans and Rosa Hubermann were talking about that evening when she first wrote to her mother. She knew it, but she had to ask. Is my mother a communist? Staring. Straight ahead. They were always asking her things, before I came here. Hans edged forward a little, forming the beginnings of a lie. I have no ideaI never met her. Did the Fhrer take her away? The question surprised them both, and it forced Papa to stand up. He looked at the brown-shirted men taking to the pile of ash with shovels. He could hear them hacking into it. Another lie was growing in his mouth, but he found it impossible to let it out. He said, I think he might have, yes. I knew it. The words were thrown at the steps and Liesel could feel the slush of anger, stirring hotly in her stomach. I hate the Fhrer, she said. I hate him. And Hans Hubermann? What did he do? What did he say? Did he bend down and embrace his foster daughter, as he wanted to? Did he tell her that he was sorry for what was happening to her, to her mother, for what had happened to her brother? Not exactly. He clenched his eyes. Then opened them. He slapped Liesel Meminger squarely in the face. Dont ever say that! His voice was quiet, but sharp. As the girl shook and sagged on the steps, he sat next to her and held his face in his hands. It would be easy to say that he was just a tall man sitting poor-postured and shattered on some church steps, but he wasnt. At the time, Liesel had no idea that her foster father, Hans Hubermann, was contemplating one of the most dangerous dilemmas a German citizen could face. Not only that, hed been facing it for close to a year. Papa? The surprise in her voice rushed her, but it also rendered her useless. She wanted to run, but she couldnt. She could take a Watschen from nuns and Rosas, but it hurt so much more from Papa. The hands were gone from Papas face now and he found the resolve to speak again. You can say that in our house, he said, looking gravely at Liesels cheek. But you never say it on the street, at school, at the BDM, never! He stood in front of her and lifted her by the triceps. He shook her. Do you hear me? With her eyes trapped wide open, Liesel nodded her compliance. It was, in fact, a rehearsal for a future lecture, when all of Hans Hubermanns worst fears arrived on Himmel Street later that year, in the early hours of a November morning. Good. He placed her back down. Now, let us try . . . At the bottom of the steps, Papa stood erect and cocked his arm. Forty-five degrees. Heil Hitler. Liesel stood up and also raised her arm. With absolute misery, she repeated it. Heil Hitler. It was quite a sightan eleven-year-old girl, trying not to cry on the church steps, saluting the Fhrer as the voices over Papas shoulder chopped and beat at the dark shape in the background. Are we still friends? Perhaps a quarter of an hour later, Papa held a cigarette olive branch in his palmthe paper and tobacco hed just received. Without a word, Liesel reached gloomily across and proceeded to roll it. For quite a while, they sat there together. Smoke climbed over Papas shoulder. After another ten minutes, the gates of thievery would open just a crack, and Liesel Meminger would widen them a little further and squeeze through. TWO QUESTIONS Would the gates shut behind her? Or would they have the goodwill to let her back out? As Liesel would discover, a good thief requires many things. Stealth. Nerve. Speed. More important than any of those things, however, was one final requirement. Luck. Actually. Forget the ten minutes. The gates open now. BOOK OF FIRE The dark came in pieces, and with the cigarette brought to an end, Liesel and Hans Hubermann began to walk home. To get out of the square, they would walk past the bonfire site and through a small side road onto Munich Street. They didnt make it that far. A middle-aged carpenter named Wolfgang Edel called out. Hed built the platforms for the Nazi big shots to stand on during the fire and he was in the process now of pulling them down. Hans Hubermann? He had long sideburns that pointed to his mouth and a dark voice. Hansi! Hey, Wolfal, Hans replied. There was an introduction to the girl and a heil Hitler. Good, Liesel. For the first few minutes, Liesel stayed within a five-meter radius of the conversation. Fragments came past her, but she didnt pay too much attention. Getting much work? No, its all tighter now. You know how it is, especially when youre not a member. You told me you were joining, Hansi. I tried, but I made a mistakeI think theyre still considering. Liesel wandered toward the mountain of ash. It sat like a magnet, like a freak. Irresistible to the eyes, similar to the road of yellow stars. As with her previous urge to see the mounds ignition, she could not look away. All alone, she didnt have the discipline to keep a safe distance. It sucked her toward it and she began to make her way around. Above her, the sky was completing its routine of darkening, but far away, over the mountains shoulder, there was a dull trace of light. Pass auf, Kind, a uniform said to her at one point. Look out, child, as he shoveled some more ash onto a cart. Closer to the town hall, under a light, some shadows stood and talked, most likely exulting in the success of the fire. From Liesels position, their voices were only sounds. Not words at all. For a few minutes, she watched the men shoveling up the pile, at first making it smaller at the sides to allow more of it to collapse. They came back and forth from a truck, and after three return trips, when the heap was reduced near the bottom, a small section of living material slipped from inside the ash. THE MATERIAL Half a red flag, two posters advertising a Jewish poet, three books, and a wooden sign with something written on it in Hebrew Perhaps they were damp. Perhaps the fire didnt burn long enough to fully reach the depth where they sat. Whatever the reason, they were huddled among the ashes, shaken. Survivors. Three books. Liesel spoke softly and she looked at the backs of the men. Come on, said one of them. Hurry up, will you, Im starving. They moved toward the truck. The threesome of books poked their noses out. Liesel moved in. The heat was still strong enough to warm her when she stood at the foot of the ash heap. When she reached her hand in, she was bitten, but on the second attempt, she made sure she was fast enough. She latched onto the closest of the books. It was hot, but it was also wet, burned only at the edges, but otherwise unhurt. It was blue. The cover felt like it was woven with hundreds of tightly drawn strings and clamped down. Red letters were pressed into those fibers. The only word Liesel had time to read was Shoulder. There wasnt enough time for the rest, and there was a problem. The smoke. Smoke lifted from the cover as she juggled it and hurried away. Her head was pulled down, and the sick beauty of nerves proved more ghastly with each stride. There were fourteen steps till the voice. It propped itself up behind her. Hey! That was when she nearly ran back and tossed the book onto the mound, but she was unable. The only movement at her disposal was the act of turning. There are some things here that didnt burn! It was one of the cleanup men. He was not facing the girl, but rather, the people standing by the town hall. Well, burn them again! came the reply. And watch them burn! I think theyre wet! Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, do I have to do everything myself? The sound of footsteps passed by. It was the mayor, wearing a black coat over his Nazi uniform. He didnt notice the girl who stood absolutely still only a short distance away. A REALIZATION A statue of the book thief stood in the courtyard. . . . Its very rare, dont you think, for a statue to appear before its subject has become famous. She sank. The thrill of being ignored! The book felt cool enough now to slip inside her uniform. At first, it was nice and warm against her chest. As she began walking, though, it began to heat up again. By the time she made it back to Papa and Wolfgang Edel, the book was starting to burn her. It seemed to be igniting. Both men looked at her. She smiled. Immediately, when the smile shrank from her lips, she could feel something else. Or more to the point, someone else. There was no mistaking the watched feeling. It was all over her, and it was confirmed when she dared to face the shadows over at the town hall. To the side of the collection of silhouettes, another one stood, a few meters removed, and Liesel realized two things. A FEW SMALL PIECES OF RECOGNITION The shadows identity and The fact that it had seen everything The shadows hands were in its coat pockets. It had fluffy hair. If it had a face, the expression on it would have been one of injury. Gottverdammt, Liesel said, only loud enough for herself. Goddamn it. Are we ready to go? In the previous moments of stupendous danger, Papa had said goodbye to Wolfgang Edel and was ready to accompany Liesel home. Ready, she answered. They began to leave the scene of the crime, and the book was well and truly burning her now. The Shoulder Shrug had applied itself to her rib cage. As they walked past the precarious town hall shadows, the book thief winced. Whats wrong? Papa asked. Nothing. Quite a few things, however, were most definitely wrong: Smoke was rising out of Liesels collar. A necklace of sweat had formed around her throat. Beneath her shirt, a book was eating her up. PART THREE meinkampf featuring: the way homea broken womana struggler a jugglerthe attributes of summer an aryan shopkeepera snorertwo tricksters and revenge in the shape of mixed candy THE WAY HOME Mein Kampf. The book penned by the Fhrer himself. It was the third book of great importance to reach Liesel Meminger; only this time, she did not steal it. The book showed up at 33 Himmel Street perhaps an hour after Liesel had drifted back to sleep from her obligatory nightmare. Some would say it was a miracle that she ever owned that book at all. Its journey began on the way home, the night of the fire. They were nearly halfway back to Himmel Street when Liesel could no longer take it. She bent over and removed the smoking book, allowing it to hop sheepishly from hand to hand. When it had cooled sufficiently, they both watched it a moment, waiting for the words. Papa: What the hell do you call that? He reached over and grabbed hold of The Shoulder Shrug. No explanation was required. It was obvious that the girl had stolen it from the fire. The book was hot and wet, blue and redembarrassedand Hans Hubermann opened it up. Pages thirty-eight and thirty-nine. Another one? Liesel rubbed her ribs. Yes. Another one. Looks like, Papa suggested, I dont need to trade any more cigarettes, do I? Not when youre stealing these things as fast as I can buy them. Liesel, by comparison, did not speak. Perhaps it was her first realization that criminality spoke best for itself. Irrefutable. Papa studied the title, probably wondering exactly what kind of threat this book posed to the hearts and minds of the German people. He handed it back. Something happened. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Each word fell away at its edges. It broke off and formed the next. The criminal could no longer resist. What, Papa? What is it? Of course. Like most humans in the grip of revelation, Hans Hubermann stood with a certain numbness. The next words would either be shouted or would not make it past his teeth. Also, they would most likely be a repetition of the last thing hed said, only moments earlier. Of course. This time, his voice was like a fist, freshly banged on the table. The man was seeing something. He was watching it quickly, end to end, like a race, but it was too high and too far away for Liesel to see. She begged him. Come on, Papa, what is it? She fretted that he would tell Mama about the book. As humans do, this was all about her. Are you going to tell? Sorry? You know. Are you going to tell Mama? Hans Hubermann still watched, tall and distant. About what? She raised the book. This. She brandished it in the air, as if waving a gun. Papa was bewildered. Why would I? She hated questions like that. They forced her to admit an ugly truth, to reveal her own filthy, thieving nature. Because I stole again. Papa bent himself to a crouching position, then rose and placed his hand on her head. He stroked her hair with his rough, long fingers and said, Of course not, Liesel. You are safe. So what are you going to do? That was the question. What marvelous act was Hans Hubermann about to produce from the thin Munich Street air? Before I show you, I think we should first take a look at what he was seeing prior to his decision. PAPAS FAST-PACED VISIONS First, he sees the girls books: The Grave Diggers Handbook, Faust the Dog, The Lighthouse, and now The Shoulder Shrug. Next is a kitchen and a volatile Hans Junior, regarding those books on the table, where the girl often reads. He speaks: And what trash is this girl reading? His son repeats the question three times, after which he makes his suggestion for more appropriate reading material. Listen, Liesel. Papa placed his arm around her and walked her on. This is our secret, this book. Well read it at night or in the basement, just like the othersbut you have to promise me something. Anything, Papa. The night was smooth and still. Everything listened. If I ever ask you to keep a secret for me, you will do it. I promise. Good. Now come on. If were any later, Mama will kill us, and we dont want that, do we? No more book stealing then, huh? Liesel grinned. What she didnt know until later was that within the next few days, her foster father managed to trade some cigarettes for another book, although this one was not for her. He knocked on the door of the Nazi Party office in Molching and took the opportunity to ask about his membership application. Once this was discussed, he proceeded to give them his last scraps of money and a dozen cigarettes. In return, he received a used copy of Mein Kampf. Happy reading, said one of the party members. Thank you. Hans nodded. From the street, he could still hear the men inside. One of the voices was particularly clear. He will never be approved, it said, even if he buys a hundred copies of Mein Kampf. The statement was unanimously agreed upon. Hans held the book in his right hand, thinking about postage money, a cigaretteless existence, and the foster daughter who had given him this brilliant idea. Thank you, he repeated, to which a passerby inquired as to what hed said. With typical affability, Hans replied, Nothing, my good man, nothing at all. Heil Hitler, and he walked down Munich Street, holding the pages of the Fhrer. There must have been a good share of mixed feelings at that moment, for Hans Hubermanns idea had not only sprung from Liesel, but from his son. Did he already fear hed never see him again? On the other hand, he was also enjoying the ecstasy of an idea, not daring just yet to envision its complications, dangers, and vicious absurdities. For now, the idea was enough. It was indestructible. Transforming it into reality, well, that was something else altogether. For now, though, lets let him enjoy it. Well give him seven months. Then we come for him. And oh, how we come. THE MAYORS LIBRARY Certainly, something of great magnitude was coming toward 33 Himmel Street, to which Liesel was currently oblivious. To distort an overused human expression, the girl had more immediate fish to fry: She had stolen a book. Someone had seen her. The book thief reacted. Appropriately. Every minute, every hour, there was worry, or more to the point, paranoia. Criminal activity will do that to a person, especially a child. They envision a prolific assortment of caughtoutedness. Some examples: People jumping out of alleys. Schoolteachers suddenly being aware of every sin youve ever committed. Police showing up at the door each time a leaf turns or a distant gate slams shut. For Liesel, the paranoia itself became the punishment, as did the dread of delivering some washing to the mayors house. It was no mistake, as Im sure you can imagine, that when the time came, Liesel conveniently overlooked the house on Grande Strasse. She delivered to the arthritic Helena Schmidt and picked up at the cat-loving Weingartner residence, but she ignored the house belonging to BrgermeisterHeinz Hermann and his wife, Ilsa. ANOTHER QUICK TRANSLATION Brgermeister = mayor On the first occasion, she stated that she simply forgot about that placea poor excuse if ever Ive heard oneas the house straddled the hill, overlooking the town, and it was unforgettable. When she went back and still returned empty-handed, she lied that there was no one home. No one home? Mama was skeptical. Skepticism gave her an itch for the wooden spoon. She waved it at Liesel and said, Get back over there now, and if you dont come home with the washing, dont come home at all. Really? That was Rudys response when Liesel told him what Mama had said. Do you want to run away together? Well starve. Im starving anyway! They laughed. No, she said, I have to do it. They walked the town as they usually did when Rudy came along. He always tried to be a gentleman and carry the bag, but each time, Liesel refused. Only she had the threat of a Watschen loitering over her head, and therefore only she could be relied upon to carry the bag correctly. Anyone else was more likely to manhandle it, twist it, or mistreat it in even the most minimal way, and it was not worth the risk. Also, it was likely that if she allowed Rudy to carry it for her, he would expect a kiss for his services, and that was not an option. Besides, she was accustomed to its burden. She would swap the bag from shoulder to shoulder, relieving each side every hundred steps or so. Liesel walked on the left, Rudy the right. Rudy talked most of the time, about the last soccer match on Himmel Street, working in his fathers shop, and whatever else came to mind. Liesel tried to listen but failed. What she heard was the dread, chiming through her ears, growing louder the closer they stepped toward Grande Strasse. What are you doing? Isnt this it? Liesel nodded that Rudy was right, for she had tried to walk past the mayors house to buy some time. Well, go on, the boy hurried her. Molching was darkening. The cold was climbing out of the ground. Move it, Saumensch. He remained at the gate. After the path, there were eight steps up to the main entrance of the house, and the great door was like a monster. Liesel frowned at the brass knocker. What are you waiting for? Rudy called out. Liesel turned and faced the street. Was there any way, any way at all, for her to evade this? Was there another story, or lets face it, another lie, that shed overlooked? We dont have all day. Rudys distant voice again. What the hell are you waiting for? Will you shut your trap, Steiner? It was a shout delivered as a whisper. What? I said shut up, you stupid Saukerl. . . . With that, she faced the door again, lifted back the brass knuckle, and tapped it three times, slowly. Feet approached from the other side. At first, she didnt look at the woman but focused on the washing bag in her hand. She examined the drawstring as she passed it over. Money was handed out to her and then, nothing. The mayors wife, who never spoke, simply stood in her bathrobe, her soft fluffy hair tied back into a short tail. A draft made itself known. Something like the imagined breath of a corpse. Still there were no words, and when Liesel found the courage to face her, the woman wore an expression not of reproach, but utter distance. For a moment, she looked over Liesels shoulder at the boy, then nodded and stepped back, closing the door. For quite a while, Liesel remained, facing the blanket of upright wood. Hey, Saumensch! No response. Liesel! Liesel reversed. Cautiously. She took the first few steps backward, calculating. Perhaps the woman hadnt seen her steal the book after all. It had been getting dark. Perhaps it was one of those times when a person appears to be looking directly at you when, in fact, theyre contentedly watching something else or simply daydreaming. Whatever the answer, Liesel didnt attempt any further analysis. Shed gotten away with it and that was enough. She turned and handled the remainder of the steps normally, taking the last three all at once. Lets go, Saukerl. She even allowed herself a laugh. Eleven-year-old paranoia was powerful. Eleven-year-old relief was euphoric. A LITTLE SOMETHING TO DAMPEN THE EUPHORIA She had gotten away with nothing. The mayors wife had seen her, all right. She was just waiting for the right moment. A few weeks passed. Soccer on Himmel Street. Reading The Shoulder Shrug between two and three oclock each morning, post-nightmare, or during the afternoon, in the basement. Another benign visit to the mayors house. All was lovely. Until. When Liesel next visited, minus Rudy, the opportunity presented itself. It was a pickup day. The mayors wife opened the door and she was not holding the bag, like she normally would. Instead, she stepped aside and motioned with her chalky hand and wrist for the girl to enter. Im just here for the washing. Liesels blood had dried inside of her. It crumbled. She almost broke into pieces on the steps. The woman said her first word to her then. She reached out, cold-fingered, and said, Wartewait. When she was sure the girl had steadied, she turned and walked hastily back inside. Thank God, Liesel exhaled. Shes getting it. It being the washing. What the woman returned with, however, was nothing of the sort. When she came and stood with an impossibly frail steadfastness, she was holding a tower of books against her stomach, from her navel to the beginnings of her breasts. She looked so vulnerable in the monstrous doorway. Long, light eyelashes and just the slightest twinge of expression. A suggestion. Come and see, it said. Shes going to torture me, Liesel decided. Shes going to take me inside, light the fireplace, and throw me in, books and all. Or shell lock me in the basement without any food. For some reason, thoughmost likely the lure of the booksshe found herself walking in. The squeaking of her shoes on the wooden floorboards made her cringe, and when she hit a sore spot, inducing the wood to groan, she almost stopped. The mayors wife was not deterred. She only looked briefly behind and continued on, to a chestnut-colored door. Now her face asked a question. Are you ready? Liesel craned her neck a little, as if she might see over the door that stood in her way. Clearly, that was the cue to open it. Jesus, Mary . . . She said it out loud, the words distributed into a room that was full of cold air and books. Books everywhere! Each wall was armed with overcrowded yet immaculate shelving. It was barely possible to see the paintwork. There were all different styles and sizes of lettering on the spines of the black, the red, the gray, the every-colored books. It was one of the most beautiful things Liesel Meminger had ever seen. With wonder, she smiled. That such a room existed! Even when she tried to wipe the smile away with her forearm, she realized instantly that it was a pointless exercise. She could feel the eyes of the woman traveling her body, and when she looked at her, they had rested on her face. There was more silence than she ever thought possible. It extended like an elastic, dying to break. The girl broke it. Can I? The two words stood among acres and acres of vacant, wooden-floored land. The books were miles away. The woman nodded. Yes, you can. Steadily, the room shrank, till the book thief could touch the shelves within a few small steps. She ran the back of her hand along the first shelf, listening to the shuffle of her fingernails gliding across the spinal cord of each book. It sounded like an instrument, or the notes of running feet. She used both hands. She raced them. One shelf against the other. And she laughed. Her voice was sprawled out, high in her throat, and when she eventually stopped and stood in the middle of the room, she spent many minutes looking from the shelves to her fingers and back again. How many books had she touched? How many had she felt? She walked over and did it again, this time much slower, with her hand facing forward, allowing the dough of her palm to feel the small hurdle of each book. It felt like magic, like beauty, as bright lines of light shone down from a chandelier. Several times, she almost pulled a title from its place but didnt dare disturb them. They were too perfect. To her left, she saw the woman again, standing by a large desk, still holding the small tower against her torso. She stood with a delighted crookedness. A smile appeared to have paralyzed her lips. Do you want me to? Liesel didnt finish the question but actually performed what she was going to ask, walking over and taking the books gently from the womans arms. She then placed them into the missing piece in the shelf, by the slightly open window. The outside cold was streaming in. For a moment, she considered closing it, but thought better of it. This was not her house, and the situation was not to be tampered with. Instead, she returned to the lady behind her, whose smile gave the appearance now of a bruise and whose arms were hanging slenderly at each side. Like girls arms. What now? An awkwardness treated itself to the room, and Liesel took a final, fleeting glance at the walls of books. In her mouth, the words fidgeted, but they came out in a rush. I should go. It took three attempts to leave. She waited in the hallway for a few minutes, but the woman didnt come, and when Liesel returned to the entrance of the room, she saw her sitting at the desk, staring blankly at one of the books. She chose not to disturb her. In the hallway, she picked up the washing. This time, she avoided the sore spot in the floorboards, walking the long length of the corridor, favoring the left-hand wall. When she closed the door behind her, a brass clank sounded in her ear, and with the washing next to her, she stroked the flesh of the wood. Get going, she said. At first, she walked home dazed. The surreal experience with the roomful of books and the stunned, broken woman walked alongside her. She could see it on the buildings, like a play. Perhaps it was similar to the way Papa had his Mein Kampf revelation. Wherever she looked, Liesel saw the mayors wife with the books piled up in her arms. Around corners, she could hear the shuffle of her own hands, disturbing the shelves. She saw the open window, the chandelier of lovely light, and she saw herself leaving, without so much as a word of thanks. Soon, her sedated condition transformed to harassment and self-loathing. She began to rebuke herself. You said nothing. Her head shook vigorously, among the hurried footsteps. Not a goodbye. Not a thank you. Not a thats the most beautiful sight Ive ever seen. Nothing! Certainly, she was a book thief, but that didnt mean she should have no manners at all. It didnt mean she couldnt be polite. She walked a good few minutes, struggling with indecision. On Munich Street, it came to an end. Just as she could make out the sign that said STEINER SCHNEIDERMEISTER, she turned and ran back. This time, there was no hesitation. She thumped the door, sending an echo of brass through the wood. Scheisse! It was not the mayors wife, but the mayor himself who stood before her. In her hurry, Liesel had neglected to notice the car that sat out front, on the street. Mustached and black-suited, the man spoke. Can I help you? Liesel could say nothing. Not yet. She was bent over, short of air, and fortunately, the woman arrived when shed at least partially recovered. Ilsa Hermann stood behind her husband, to the side. I forgot, Liesel said. She lifted the bag and addressed the mayors wife. Despite the forced labor of breath, she fed the words through the gap in the doorwaybetween the mayor and the frame to the woman. Such was her effort to breathe that the words escaped only a few at a time. I forgot . . . I mean, I just . . . wanted, she said, to . . . thank you. The mayors wife bruised herself again. Coming forward to stand beside her husband, she nodded very faintly, waited, and closed the door. It took Liesel a minute or so to leave. She smiled at the steps. ENTER THE STRUGGLER Now for a change of scenery. Weve both had it too easy till now, my friend, dont you think? How about we forget Molching for a minute or two? It will do us some good. Also, its important to the story. We will travel a little, to a secret storage room, and we will see what we see. A GUIDED TOUR OF SUFFERING To your left, perhaps your right, perhaps even straight ahead, you find a small black room. In it sits a Jew. He is scum. He is starving. He is afraid. Pleasetry not to look away. A few hundred miles northwest, in Stuttgart, far from book thieves, mayors wives, and Himmel Street, a man was sitting in the dark. It was the best place, they decided. Its harder to find a Jew in the dark. He sat on his suitcase, waiting. How many days had it been now? He had eaten only the foul taste of his own hungry breath for what felt like weeks, and still, nothing. Occasionally voices wandered past and sometimes he longed for them to knuckle the door, to open it, to drag him out, into the unbearable light. For now, he could only sit on his suitcase couch, hands under his chin, his elbows burning his thighs. There was sleep, starving sleep, and the irritation of half awakeness, and the punishment of the floor. Ignore the itchy feet. Dont scratch the soles. And dont move too much. Just leave everything as it is, at all cost. It might be time to go soon. Light like a gun. Explosive to the eyes. It might be time to go. It might be time, so wake up. Wake up now, Goddamn it! Wake up. The door was opened and shut, and a figure was crouched over him. The hand splashed at the cold waves of his clothes and the grimy currents beneath. A voice came down, behind it. Max, it whispered. Max, wake up. His eyes did not do anything that shock normally describes. No snapping, no slapping, no jolt. Those things happen when you wake from a bad dream, not when you wake into one. No, his eyes dragged themselves open, from darkness to dim. It was his body that reacted, shrugging upward and throwing out an arm to grip the air. The voice calmed him now. Sorry its taken so long. I think people have been watching me. And the man with the identity card took longer than I thought, but There was a pause. Its yours now. Not great quality, but hopefully good enough to get you there if it comes to that. He crouched down and waved a hand at the suitcase. In his other hand, he held something heavy and flat. Come onoff. Max obeyed, standing and scratching. He could feel the tightening of his bones. The card is in this. It was a book. You should put the map in here, too, and the directions. And theres a keytaped to the inside cover. He clicked open the case as quietly as he could and planted the book like a bomb. Ill be back in a few days. He left a small bag filled with bread, fat, and three small carrots. Next to it was a bottle of water. There was no apology. Its the best I could do. Door open, door shut. Alone again. What came to him immediately then was the sound. Everything was so desperately noisy in the dark when he was alone. Each time he moved, there was the sound of a crease. He felt like a man in a paper suit. The food. Max divided the bread into three parts and set two aside. The one in his hand he immersed himself in, chewing and gulping, forcing it down the dry corridor of his throat. The fat was cold and hard, scaling its way down, occasionally holding on. Big swallows tore them away and sent them below. Then the carrots. Again, he set two aside and devoured the third. The noise was astounding. Surely, the Fhrer himself could hear the sound of the orange crush in his mouth. It broke his teeth with every bite. When he drank, he was quite positive that he was swallowing them. Next time, he advised himself, drink first. Later, to his relief, when the echoes left him and he found the courage to check with his fingers, each tooth was still there, intact. He tried for a smile, but it didnt come. He could only imagine a meek attempt and a mouthful of broken teeth. For hours, he felt at them. He opened the suitcase and picked up the book. He could not read the title in the dark, and the gamble of striking a match seemed too great right now. When he spoke, it was the taste of a whisper. Please, he said. Please. He was speaking to a man he had never met. As well as a few other important details, he knew the mans name. Hans Hubermann. Again, he spoke to him, to the distant stranger. He pleaded. Please. THE ATTRIBUTES OF SUMMER So there you have it. Youre well aware of exactly what was coming to Himmel Street by the end of 1940. I know. You know. Liesel Meminger, however, cannot be put into that category. For the book thief, the summer of that year was simple. It consisted of four main elements, or attributes. At times, she would wonder which was the most powerful. AND THE NOMINEES ARE . . . Advancing through The Shoulder Shrug every night. Reading on the floor of the mayors library. Playing soccer on Himmel Street. The seizure of a different stealing opportunity. The Shoulder Shrug, she decided, was excellent. Each night, when she calmed herself from her nightmare, she was soon pleased that she was awake and able to read. A few pages? Papa asked her, and Liesel would nod. Sometimes they would complete a chapter the next afternoon, down in the basement. The authorities problem with the book was obvious. The protagonist was a Jew, and he was presented in a positive light. Unforgivable. He was a rich man who was tired of letting life pass him bywhat he referred to as the shrugging of the shoulders to the problems and pleasures of a persons time on earth. In the early part of summer in Molching, as Liesel and Papa made their way through the book, this man was traveling to Amsterdam on business, and the snow was shivering outside. The girl loved that the shivering snow. Thats exactly what it does when it comes down, she told Hans Hubermann. They sat together on the bed, Papa half asleep and the girl wide awake. Sometimes she watched Papa as he slept, knowing both more and less about him than either of them realized. She often heard him and Mama discussing his lack of work or talking despondently about Hans going to see their son, only to discover that the young man had left his lodging and was most likely already on his way to war. Schlaf gut, Papa, the girl said at those times. Sleep well, and she slipped around him, out of bed, to turn off the light. The next attribute, as Ive mentioned, was the mayors library. To exemplify that particular situation, we can look to a cool day in late June. Rudy, to put it mildly, was incensed. Who did Liesel Meminger think she was, telling him she had to take the washing and ironing alone today? Wasnt he good enough to walk the streets with her? Stop complaining, Saukerl, she reprimanded him. I just feel bad. Youre missing the game. He looked over his shoulder. Well, if you put it like that. There was a Schmunzel. You can stick your washing. He ran off and wasted no time joining a team. When Liesel made it to the top of Himmel Street, she looked back just in time to see him standing in front of the nearest makeshift goals. He was waving. Saukerl, she laughed, and as she held up her hand, she knew completely that he was simultaneously calling her a Saumensch. I think thats as close to love as eleven-year-olds can get. She started to run, to Grande Strasse and the mayors house. Certainly, there was sweat, and the wrinkled pants of breath, stretching out in front of her. But she was reading. The mayors wife, having let the girl in for the fourth time, was sitting at the desk, simply watching the books. On the second visit, she had given permission for Liesel to pull one out and go through it, which led to another and another, until up to half a dozen books were stuck to her, either clutched beneath her arm or among the pile that was climbing higher in her remaining hand. On this occasion, as Liesel stood in the cool surrounds of the room, her stomach growled, but no reaction was forthcoming from the mute, damaged woman. She was in her bathrobe again, and although she observed the girl several times, it was never for very long. She usually paid more attention to what was next to her, to something missing. The window was opened wide, a square cool mouth, with occasional gusty surges. Liesel sat on the floor. The books were scattered around her. After forty minutes, she left. Every title was returned to its place. Goodbye, Frau Hermann. The words always came as a shock. Thank you. After which the woman paid her and she left. Every movement was accounted for, and the book thief ran home. As summer set in, the roomful of books became warmer, and with every pickup or delivery day the floor was not as painful. Liesel would sit with a small pile of books next to her, and shed read a few paragraphs of each, trying to memorize the words she didnt know, to ask Papa when she made it home. Later on, as an adolescent, when Liesel wrote about those books, she no longer remembered the titles. Not one. Perhaps had she stolen them, she would have been better equipped. What she did remember was that one of the picture books had a name written clumsily on the inside cover: THE NAME OF A BOY Johann Hermann Liesel bit down on her lip, but she could not resist it for long. From the floor, she turned and looked up at the bathrobed woman and made an inquiry. Johann Hermann, she said. Who is that? The woman looked beside her, somewhere next to the girls knees. Liesel apologized. Im sorry. I shouldnt be asking such things. . . . She let the sentence die its own death. The womans face did not alter, yet somehow she managed to speak. He is nothing now in this world, she explained. He was my . . . THE FILES OF RECOLLECTION Oh, yes, I definitely remember him. The sky was murky and deep like quicksand. There was a young man parceled up in barbed wire, like a giant crown of thorns. I untangled him and carried him out. High above the earth, we sank together, to our knees. It was just another day, 1918. Apart from everything else, she said, he froze to death. For a moment, she played with her hands, and she said it again. He froze to death, Im sure of it. The mayors wife was just one of a worldwide brigade. You have seen her before, Im certain. In your stories, your poems, the screens you like to watch. Theyre everywhere, so why not here? Why not on a shapely hill in a small German town? Its as good a place to suffer as any. The point is, Ilsa Hermann had decided to make suffering her triumph. When it refused to let go of her, she succumbed to it. She embraced it. She could have shot herself, scratched herself, or indulged in other forms of self-mutilation, but she chose what she probably felt was the weakest optionto at least endure the discomfort of the weather. For all Liesel knew, she prayed for summer days that were cold and wet. For the most part, she lived in the right place. When Liesel left that day, she said something with great uneasiness. In translation, two giant words were struggled with, carried on her shoulder, and dropped as a bungling pair at Ilsa Hermanns feet. They fell off sideways as the girl veered with them and could no longer sustain their weight. Together, they sat on the floor, large and loud and clumsy. TWO GIANTWORDS IM SORRY Again, the mayors wife watched the space next to her. A blank-page face. For what? she asked, but time had elapsed by then. The girl was already well out of the room. She was nearly at the front door. When she heard it, Liesel stopped, but she chose not to go back, preferring to make her way noiselessly from the house and down the steps. She took in the view of Molching before disappearing down into it, and she pitied the mayors wife for quite a while. At times, Liesel wondered if she should simply leave the woman alone, but Ilsa Hermann was too interesting, and the pull of the books was too strong. Once, words had rendered Liesel useless, but now, when she sat on the floor, with the mayors wife at her husbands desk, she felt an innate sense of power. It happened every time she deciphered a new word or pieced together a sentence. She was a girl. In Nazi Germany. How fitting that she was discovering the power of words. And how awful (and yet exhilarating!) it would feel many months later, when she would unleash the power of this newfound discovery the very moment the mayors wife let her down. How quickly the pity would leave her, and how quickly it would spill over into something else completely. . . . Now, though, in the summer of 1940, she could not see what lay ahead, in more ways than one. She was witness only to a sorrowful woman with a roomful of books whom she enjoyed visiting. That was all. It was part two of her existence that summer. Part three, thank God, was a little more lightheartedHimmel Street soccer. Allow me to play you a picture: Feet scuffing road. The rush of boyish breath. Shouted words: Here! This way! Scheisse! The coarse bounce of ball on road. All were present on Himmel Street, as well as the sound of apologies, as summer further intensified. The apologies belonged to Liesel Meminger. They were directed at Tommy Mller. By the start of July, she finally managed to convince him that she wasnt going to kill him. Since the beating shed handed him the previous November, Tommy was still frightened to be around her. In the soccer meetings on Himmel Street, he kept well clear. You never know when she might snap, hed confided in Rudy, half twitching, half speaking. In Liesels defense, she never gave up on trying to put him at ease. It disappointed her that shed successfully made peace with Ludwig Schmeikl and not with the innocent Tommy Mller. He still cowered slightly whenever he saw her. How could I know you were smiling for me that day? she asked him repeatedly. Shed even put in a few stints as goalie for him, until everyone else on the team begged him to go back in. Get back in there! a boy named Harald Mollenhauer finally ordered him. Youre useless. This was after Tommy tripped him up as he was about to score. He would have awarded himself a penalty but for the fact that they were on the same side. Liesel came back out and would somehow always end up opposing Rudy. They would tackle and trip each other, call each other names. Rudy would commentate: She cant get around him this time, the stupid Saumensch Arschgrobbler. She hasnt got a hope. He seemed to enjoy calling Liesel an ass scratcher. It was one of the joys of childhood. Another of the joys, of course, was stealing. Part four, summer 1940. In fairness, there were many things that brought Rudy and Liesel together, but it was the stealing that cemented their friendship completely. It was brought about by one opportunity, and it was driven by one inescapable forceRudys hunger. The boy was permanently dying for something to eat. On top of the rationing situation, his fathers business wasnt doing so well of late (the threat of Jewish competition was taken away, but so were the Jewish customers). The Steiners were scratching things together to get by. Like many other people on the Himmel Street side of town, they needed to trade. Liesel would have given him some food from her place, but there wasnt an abundance of it there, either. Mama usually made pea soup. On Sunday nights she cooked itand not just enough for one or two repeat performances. She made enough pea soup to last until the following Saturday. Then on Sunday, shed cook another one. Pea soup, bread, sometimes a small portion of potatoes or meat. You ate it up and you didnt ask for more, and you didnt complain. At first, they did things to try to forget about it. Rudy wouldnt be hungry if they played soccer on the street. Or if they took bikes from his brother and sister and rode to Alex Steiners shop or visited Liesels papa, if he was working that particular day. Hans Hubermann would sit with them and tell jokes in the last light of afternoon. With the arrival of a few hot days, another distraction was learning to swim in the Amper River. The water was still a little too cold, but they went anyway. Come on, Rudy coaxed her in. Just here. It isnt so deep here. She couldnt see the giant hole she was walking into and sank straight to the bottom. Dog-paddling saved her life, despite nearly choking on the swollen intake of water. You Saukerl, she accused him when she collapsed onto the riverbank. Rudy made certain to keep well away. Hed seen what she did to Ludwig Schmeikl. You can swim now, cant you? Which didnt particularly cheer her up as she marched away. Her hair was pasted to the side of her face and snot was flowing from her nose. He called after her. Does this mean I dont get a kiss for teaching you? Saukerl! The nerve of him! It was inevitable. The depressing pea soup and Rudys hunger finally drove them to thievery. It inspired their attachment to an older group of kids who stole from the farmers. Fruit stealers. After a game of soccer, both Liesel and Rudy learned the benefits of keeping their eyes open. Sitting on Rudys front step, they noticed Fritz Hammerone of their older counterpartseating an apple. It was of the Klar variety ripening in July and Augustand it looked magnificent in his hand. Three or four more of them clearly bulged in his jacket pockets. They wandered closer. Where did you get those? Rudy asked. The boy only grinned at first. Shhh, and he stopped. He then proceeded to pull an apple from his pocket and toss it over. Just look at it, he warned them. Dont eat it. The next time they saw the same boy wearing the same jacket, on a day that was too warm for it, they followed him. He led them toward the upstream section of the Amper River. It was close to where Liesel sometimes read with her papa when she was first learning. A group of five boys, some lanky, a few short and lean, stood waiting. There were a few such groups in Molching at the time, some with members as young as six. The leader of this particular outfit was an agreeable fifteen-year-old criminal named Arthur Berg. He looked around and saw the two eleven-year-olds dangling off the back. Und? he asked. And? Im starving, Rudy replied. And hes fast, said Liesel. Berg looked at her. I dont recall asking for your opinion. He was teenage tall and had a long neck. Pimples were gathered in peer groups on his face. But I like you. He was friendly, in a smart-mouth adolescent way. Isnt this the one who beat up your brother, Anderl? Word had certainly made its way around. A good hiding transcends the divides of age. Another boyone of the short, lean oneswith shaggy blond hair and ice-colored skin, looked over. I think so. Rudy confirmed it. It is. Andy Schmeikl walked across and studied her, up and down, his face pensive before breaking into a gaping smile. Great work, kid. He even slapped her among the bones of her back, catching a sharp piece of shoulder blade. Id get whipped for it if I did it myself. Arthur had moved on to Rudy. And youre the Jesse Owens one, arent you? Rudy nodded. Clearly, said Arthur, youre an idiotbut youre our kind of idiot. Come on. They were in. When they reached the farm, Liesel and Rudy were thrown a sack. Arthur Berg gripped his own burlap bag. He ran a hand through his mild strands of hair. Either of you ever stolen before? Of course, Rudy certified. All the time. He was not very convincing. Liesel was more specific. Ive stolen two books, at which Arthur laughed, in three short snorts. His pimples shifted position. You cant eat books, sweetheart. From there, they all examined the apple trees, who stood in long, twisted rows. Arthur Berg gave the orders. One, he said. Dont get caught on the fence. You get caught on the fence, you get left behind. Understood? Everyone nodded or said yes. Two. One in the tree, one below. Someone has to collect. He rubbed his hands together. He was enjoying this. Three. If you see someone coming, you call out loud enough to wake the deadand we all run. Richtig? Richtig. It was a chorus. TWO DEBUTANTAPPLE THIEVES, WHISPERING Lieselare you sure? Do you still want to do this? Look at the barbed wire, Rudy. Its so high. No, no, look, you throw the sack on. See? Like them. All right. Come on then! I cant! Hesitation. Rudy, I Move it, Saumensch ! He pushed her toward the fence, threw the empty sack on the wire, and they climbed over, running toward the others. Rudy made his way up the closest tree and started flinging down the apples. Liesel stood below, putting them into the sack. By the time it was full, there was another problem. How do we get back over the fence? The answer came when they noticed Arthur Berg climbing as close to a fence post as possible. The wires stronger there. Rudy pointed. He threw the sack over, made Liesel go first, then landed beside her on the other side, among the fruit that spilled from the bag. Next to them, the long legs of Arthur Berg stood watching in amusement. Not bad, landed the voice from above. Not bad at all. When they made it back to the river, hidden among the trees, he took the sack and gave Liesel and Rudy a dozen apples between them. Good work, was his final comment on the matter. That afternoon, before they returned home, Liesel and Rudy consumed six apples apiece within half an hour. At first, they entertained thoughts of sharing the fruit at their respective homes, but there was considerable danger in that. They didnt particularly relish the opportunity of explaining just where the fruit had come from. Liesel even thought that perhaps she could get away with only telling Papa, but she didnt want him thinking that he had a compulsive criminal on his hands. So she ate. On the riverbank where she learned to swim, each apple was disposed of. Unaccustomed to such luxury, they knew it was likely theyd be sick. They ate anyway. Saumensch! Mama abused her that night. Why are you vomiting so much? Maybe its the pea soup, Liesel suggested. Thats right, Papa echoed. He was over at the window again. It must be. I feel a bit sick myself. Who asked you, Saukerl? Quickly, she turned back to face the vomiting Saumensch. Well? What is it? What is it, you filthy pig? But Liesel? She said nothing. The apples, she thought happily. The apples, and she vomited one more time, for luck. THE ARYAN SHOPKEEPER They stood outside Frau Dillers, against the whitewashed wall. A piece of candy was in Liesel Memingers mouth. The sun was in her eyes. Despite these difficulties, she was still able to speak and argue. ANOTHER CONVERSATION * BETWEEN RUDY AND LIESEL Hurry up, Saumensch, thats ten already. Its not, its only eightIve got two to go. Well, hurry up, then. I told you we should have gotten a knife and sawn it in half. . . . Come on, thats two. All right. Here. And dont swallow it. Do I look like an idiot? [A short pause] This is great, isnt it? It sure is, Saumensch. At the end of August and summer, they found one pfennig on the ground. Pure excitement. It was sitting half rotten in some dirt, on the washing and ironing route. A solitary corroded coin. Take a look at that! Rudy swooped on it. The excitement almost stung as they rushed back to Frau Dillers, not even considering that a single pfennig might not be the right price. They burst through the door and stood in front of the Aryan shopkeeper, who regarded them with contempt. Im waiting, she said. Her hair was tied back and her black dress choked her body. The framed photo of the Fhrer kept watch from the wall. Heil Hitler, Rudy led. Heil Hitler, she responded, straightening taller behind the counter. And you? She glared at Liesel, who promptly gave her a heil Hitler of her own. It didnt take Rudy long to dig the coin from his pocket and place it firmly on the counter. He looked straight into Frau Dillers spectacled eyes and said, Mixed candy, please. Frau Diller smiled. Her teeth elbowed each other for room in her mouth, and her unexpected kindness made Rudy and Liesel smile as well. Not for long. She bent down, did some searching, and came back. Here, she said, tossing a single piece of candy onto the counter. Mix it yourself. Outside, they unwrapped it and tried biting it in half, but the sugar was like glass. Far too tough, even for Rudys animal-like choppers. Instead, they had to trade sucks on it until it was finished. Ten sucks for Rudy. Ten for Liesel. Back and forth. This, Rudy announced at one point, with a candy-toothed grin, is the good life, and Liesel didnt disagree. By the time they were finished, both their mouths were an exaggerated red, and as they walked home, they reminded each other to keep their eyes peeled, in case they found another coin. Naturally, they found nothing. No one can be that lucky twice in one year, let alone a single afternoon. Still, with red tongues and teeth, they walked down Himmel Street, happily searching the ground as they went. The day had been a great one, and Nazi Germany was a wondrous place. THE STRUGGLER, CONTINUED We move forward now, to a cold night struggle. Well let the book thief catch up later. It was November 3, and the floor of the train held on to his feet. In front of him, he read from the copy of Mein Kampf. His savior. Sweat was swimming out of his hands. Fingermarks clutched the book. BOOK THIEF PRODUCTIONS OFFICIALLY PRESENTS Mein Kampf (My Struggle) by Adolf Hitler Behind Max Vandenburg, the city of Stuttgart opened its arms in mockery. He was not welcome there, and he tried not to look back as the stale bread disintegrated in his stomach. A few times, he shifted again and watched the lights become only a handful and then disappear altogether. Look proud, he advised himself. You cannot look afraid. Read the book. Smile at it. Its a great bookthe greatest book youve ever read. Ignore that woman on the other side. Shes asleep now anyway. Come on, Max, youre only a few hours away. As it had turned out, the promised return visit in the room of darkness didnt take days; it had taken a week and a half. Then another week till the next, and another, until he lost all sense of the passing of days and hours. He was relocated once more, to another small storage room, where there was more light, more visits, and more food. Time, however, was running out. Im leaving soon, his friend Walter Kugler told him. You know how it isthe army. Im sorry, Walter. Walter Kugler, Maxs friend from childhood, placed his hand on the Jews shoulder. It could be worse. He looked his friend in his Jewish eyes. I could be you. That was their last meeting. A final package was left in the corner, and this time, there was a ticket. Walter opened Mein Kampf and slid it inside, next to the map hed brought with the book itself. Page thirteen. He smiled. For luck, yes? For luck, and the two of them embraced. When the door shut, Max opened the book and examined the ticket. Stuttgart to Munich to Pasing. It left in two days, in the night, just in time to make the last connection. From there, he would walk. The map was already in his head, folded in quarters. The key was still taped to the inside cover. He sat for half an hour before stepping toward the bag and opening it. Apart from food, a few other items sat inside. THE EXTRA CONTENTS OF WALTER KUGLERS GIFT One small razor. A spoonthe closest thing to a mirror. Shaving cream. A pair of scissors. When he left it, the storeroom was empty but for the floor. Goodbye, he whispered. The last thing Max saw was the small mound of hair, sitting casually against the wall. Goodbye. With a clean-shaven face and lopsided yet neatly combed hair, he had walked out of that building a new man. In fact, he walked out German. Hang on a second, he was German. Or more to the point, he had been. In his stomach was the electric combination of nourishment and nausea. He walked to the station. He showed his ticket and identity card, and now he sat in a small box compartment of the train, directly in dangers spotlight. Papers. That was what he dreaded to hear. It was bad enough when he was stopped on the platform. He knew he could not withstand it twice. The shivering hands. The smellno, the stenchof guilt. He simply couldnt bear it again. Fortunately, they came through early and only asked for the ticket, and now all that was left was a window of small towns, the congregations of lights, and the woman snoring on the other side of the compartment. For most of the journey, he made his way through the book, trying never to look up. The words lolled about in his mouth as he read them. Strangely, as he turned the pages and progressed through the chapters, it was only two words he ever tasted. Mein Kampf. My struggle The title, over and over again, as the train prattled on, from one German town to the next. Mein Kampf. Of all the things to save him. TRICKSTERS You could argue that Liesel Meminger had it easy. She did have it easy compared to Max Vandenburg. Certainly, her brother practically died in her arms. Her mother abandoned her. But anything was better than being a Jew. In the time leading up to Maxs arrival, another washing customer was lost, this time the Weingartners. The obligatory Schimpferei occurred in the kitchen, and Liesel composed herself with the fact that there were still two left, and even better, one of them was the mayor, the wife, the books. As for Liesels other activities, she was still causing havoc with Rudy Steiner. I would even suggest that they were polishing their wicked ways. They made a few more journeys with Arthur Berg and his friends, keen to prove their worth and extend their thieving repertoire. They took potatoes from one farm, onions from another. Their biggest victory, however, they performed alone. As witnessed earlier, one of the benefits of walking through town was the prospect of finding things on the ground. Another was noticing people, or more important, the same people, doing identical things week after week. A boy from school, Otto Sturm, was one such person. Every Friday afternoon, he rode his bike to church, carrying goods to the priests. For a month, they watched him, as good weather turned to bad, and Rudy in particular was determined that one Friday, in an abnormally frosty week in October, Otto wouldnt quite make it. All those priests, Rudy explained as they walked through town. Theyre all too fat anyway. They could do without a feed for a week or so. Liesel could only agree. First of all, she wasnt Catholic. Second, she was pretty hungry herself. As always, she was carrying the washing. Rudy was carrying two buckets of cold water, or as he put it, two buckets of future ice. Just before two oclock, he went to work. Without any hesitation, he poured the water onto the road in the exact position where Otto would pedal around the corner. Liesel had to admit it. There was a small portion of guilt at first, but the plan was perfect, or at least as close to perfect as it could be. At just after two oclock every Friday, Otto Sturm turned onto Munich Street with the produce in his front basket, at the handlebars. On this particular Friday, that was as far as he would travel. The road was icy as it was, but Rudy put on the extra coat, barely able to contain a grin. It ran across his face like a skid. Come on, he said, that bush there. After approximately fifteen minutes, the diabolical plan bore its fruit, so to speak. Rudy pointed his finger into a gap in the bush. There he is. Otto came around the corner, dopey as a lamb. He wasted no time in losing control of the bike, sliding across the ice, and lying facedown on the road. When he didnt move, Rudy looked at Liesel with alarm. Crucified Christ, he said, I think we might have killed him! He crept slowly out, removed the basket, and they made their getaway. Was he breathing? Liesel asked, farther down the street. Keine Ahnung, Rudy said, clinging to the basket. He had no idea. From far down the hill, they watched as Otto stood up, scratched his head, scratched his crotch, and looked everywhere for the basket. Stupid Scheisskopf. Rudy grinned, and they looked through the spoils. Bread, broken eggs, and the big one, Speck. Rudy held the fatty ham to his nose and breathed it gloriously in. Beautiful. As tempting as it was to keep the victory to themselves, they were overpowered by a sense of loyalty to Arthur Berg. They made their way to his impoverished lodging on Kempf Strasse and showed him the produce. Arthur couldnt hold back his approval. Who did you steal this from? It was Rudy who answered. Otto Sturm. Well, he nodded, whoever that is, Im grateful to him. He walked inside and returned with a bread knife, a frying pan, and a jacket, and the three thieves walked the hallway of apartments. Well get the others, Arthur Berg stated as they made it outside. We might be criminals, but were not totally immoral. Much like the book thief, he at least drew the line somewhere. A few more doors were knocked on. Names were called out to apartments from streets below, and soon, the whole conglomerate of Arthur Bergs fruit-stealing troop was on its way to the Amper. In the clearing on the other side, a fire was lit and what was left of the eggs was salvaged and fried. The bread and Speck were cut. With hands and knives, every last piece of Otto Sturms delivery was eaten. No priest in sight. It was only at the end that an argument developed, regarding the basket. The majority of boys wanted to burn it. Fritz Hammer and Andy Schmeikl wanted to keep it, but Arthur Berg, showing his incongruous moral aptitude, had a better idea. You two, he said to Rudy and Liesel. Maybe you should take it back to that Sturm character. Id say that poor bastard probably deserves that much. Oh, come on, Arthur. I dont want to hear it, Andy. Jesus Christ. He doesnt want to hear it, either. The group laughed and Rudy Steiner picked up the basket. Ill take it back and hang it on their mailbox. He had walked only twenty meters or so when the girl caught up. She would be home far too late for comfort, but she was well aware that she had to accompany Rudy Steiner through town, to the Sturm farm on the other side. For a long time, they walked in silence. Do you feel bad? Liesel finally asked. They were already on the way home. About what? You know. Of course I do, but Im not hungry anymore, and I bet hes not hungry, either. Dont think for a second that the priests would get food if there wasnt enough to go around at home. He just hit the ground so hard. Dont remind me. But Rudy Steiner couldnt resist smiling. In years to come, he would be a giver of bread, not a stealerproof again of the contradictory human being. So much good, so much evil. Just add water. Five days after their bittersweet little victory, Arthur Berg emerged again and invited them on his next stealing project. They ran into him on Munich Street, on the way home from school on a Wednesday. He was already in his Hitler Youth uniform. Were going again tomorrow afternoon. You interested? They couldnt help themselves. Where? The potato place. Twenty-four hours later, Liesel and Rudy braved the wire fence again and filled their sack. The problem showed up as they made their getaway. Christ! shouted Arthur. The farmer! It was his next word, however, that frightened. He called it out as if hed already been attacked with it. His mouth ripped open. The word flew out, and the word was ax. Sure enough, when they turned around, the farmer was running at them, the weapon held aloft. The whole group ran for the fence line and made their way over. Rudy, who was farthest away, caught up quickly, but not quickly enough to avoid being last. As he pulled his leg up, he became entangled. Hey! The sound of the stranded. The group stopped. Instinctively, Liesel ran back. Hurry up! Arthur called out. His voice was far away, as if hed swallowed it before it exited his mouth. White sky. The others ran. Liesel arrived and started pulling at the fabric of his pants. Rudys eyes were opened wide with fear. Quick, he said, hes coming. Far off, they could still hear the sound of deserting feet when an extra hand grabbed the wire and reefed it away from Rudy Steiners pants. A piece was left on the metallic knot, but the boy was able to escape. Now move it, Arthur advised them, not long before the farmer arrived, swearing and struggling for breath. The ax held on now, with force, to his leg. He called out the futile words of the robbed: Ill have you arrested! Ill find you! Ill find out who you are! That was when Arthur Berg replied. The name is Owens! He loped away, catching up to Liesel and Rudy. Jesse Owens! When they made it to safe ground, fighting to suck the air into their lungs, they sat down and Arthur Berg came over. Rudy wouldnt look at him. Its happened to all of us, Arthur said, sensing the disappointment. Was he lying? They couldnt be sure and they would never find out. A few weeks later, Arthur Berg moved to Cologne. They saw him once more, on one of Liesels washing delivery rounds. In an alleyway off Munich Street, he handed Liesel a brown paper bag containing a dozen chestnuts. He smirked. A contact in the roasting industry. After informing them of his departure, he managed to proffer a last pimply smile and to cuff each of them on the forehead. Dont go eating all those things at once, either, and they never saw Arthur Berg again. As for me, I can tell you that I most definitely saw him.

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