Title: Dreaming in Words: a Max/Liesel manifesto
Fandom: The Book Thief
Notes: I guess I felt like my love for them needed some justification. Also, this book, these characters, this pairing, and this author deserve more squeeing. SPOILERS for the entire book. You've been warned.
Who are they?
“…the book thief…”
Liesel: the book thief herself. The reader sees Liesel first at the death of her young brother, Werner, who dies of cold and a cough in transit to Himmel Street. Although Liesel doesn’t realize it until much later, her mother and father are Communists and, therefore, discriminated against by the Nazi government. Liesel makes it to Himmel Street without her brother, where Hans and Rosa Hubermann become her foster parents. She loves words, books, her papa, his accordion, and
Jesse Owens Rudy Steiner.
She’s described as having passably German blonde hair, but “dangerous” brown eyes. At the time that the book begins, she’s nine years old. By the time the book ends, she’s fifteen.
“Out of sheer luck and many footsteps, I made it.”
A German Jew who lives in Liesel’s basement. The reader sees Max first as he hides in a cramped nook of his friend’s house. Max manages to make it to Himmel Street through the help of his friend, a copy of Mein Kampf, and the promise of Hans Hubermann (who owes Max’s father a life-debt from WWI). He ekes out an existence in the Hubermann basement, eventually becoming close to the family, especially Liesel.
He’s described as having feathery hair, swampy eyes, and a crooked nose (probably thanks in part to his favorite past-time: fighting). At the time the book begins, he’s twenty-four years old. By the time the book ends, he’s twenty-nine.
“They did not say hello.
It was more like edges.”
All the relationships in this book are too touching and poignant for words. In shipping Max and Liesel, I in no way appreciate less Liesel’s relationship with Rudy, or the fact that what she and Max have is, at its core, a very strong friendship. Liesel makes connections with everyone from her Papa to the mayor’s wife down the street. Why does this one stick out at me when the book has Liesel and Rudy written all over it?
I think I cried hardest of all when I read the description of, as Zusak says, Ruday’s “dusty, bomb-hit lips”. And I agree that, had Rudy left Himmel Street alive, they probably would have married and had a wonderful life together filled with foul language, dedication, and love. He and Liesel are set to be a romantic pair. But, to my mind, Liesel and Max are set to be a soul pair. I don’t see his care for her as primarily paternal or fraternal. I see it as friendship – which implies a kind of equality. Whether what I perceive as romance is of the typical hearts and flower type, or of the beauty of life type, is perhaps unclear. There’s certainly an age issue, but the creator himself isn’t particularly squicked out by it (or if he is, he’s being incredibly polite – which, I think, is to his credit either way. More on this later).
And no, they don’t end up together. But they survive. They embrace and fall to the floor. There’s hope – that’s what they bring each other.
These characters really do love each other, there’s no getting around it. The beauty of Zusak’ language regarding the characters only helps. Of course, Liesel forms this kind of poignant relationship with many people throughout the books, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of her moments with Max.
Since I’m rendered incoherent and insignificant in the wake of Zusaks’ words, I’m going to let them do the majority of the point-making here.
“Often I wish this would all be over, Liesel, but then you somehow
do something like walk down the basement steps
with a snowman in your hands.”
See??? She’s the light in his life, the only things that makes it worth living for him while he’s stuck in her basement, hiding from a government that wants to kill him.
“Never had movement been such a burden.
Never had her heart been so definite and big in her adolescent chest.”
This is how profoundly happy she is to see him again, how profoundly upset she is to see him hurt.
“When he made it to Frau Diller’s, he looked back one last time to number
thirty-three. He could not see the figure in the kitchen window, but she could
see him. She waved and he did not wave back.
Liesel could still feel his mouth on her
forehead. She could smell his breath of goodbye.”
That is wistful. And, again, completely touching.
“She was courageous enough to reach out and hold his bearded face.
“Is it really you, Max?”
Such a brilliant German day and its attentive crowd.
He let his mouth kiss her palm.
“Yes, Liesel, it’s me,” and he held the girl’s hand in his face and
cried into her fingers. He cried as the soldiers came and
a small collection of insolent Jews stood and watched.”
I mean, how can you not read that and see something romantic there?
“For Liesel Meminger, the early stages of 1942 could be
summed up like this:
She became thirteen years of age. Her chest
was still flat. She had not yet bled. The young man
from her basement was now in her bed.
How did Max Vandenburg
end up in Liesel’s bed?
As mentioned above, there may be a squick factor because of the age. Liesel, by the time of their reunion, is well into her adolescence. Definitely young, but not really a child anymore, especially considering the things she’s been through. There’s nothing inappropriate about their relationship in itself – it’s more the fact that their love could become romantic, because there was some grain of that in there, that intrigues me (and is perhaps where the squick comes from). Markus Zusak apparently doesn’t find the idea of the two together repulsive (in fact, he seems to find it a valid train of thought), so unless he’s being polite (which is possible – some people are polite, after all) he doesn’t find it too surprising that people see something there. He even makes a little joke about it (above) in the text, which, I think, is pretty funny. Obviously, there’s nothing inappropriate/squicky going on here, as is. So how could their relationship possibly be anything romantic?
Keep in mind that The Book Thief wasn’t intended to be marketed as a YA/children’s book, wiped squeaky-clean of anything that might possibly offend (no offense to YA; I love you longtime – I know that you sometimes offend quite well). It was intended as an adult book, with the possibility of complex subjects.
So here it is: they are not in a relationship during the length of The Book Thief. But they have an extremely close friendship. The idea that they could fall in love (and that they do love one another), that they could have a relationship in the future, without there being any squick, is plausible. A little weird, but plausible, especially when you consider the fact that they’ve already become fast friends despite their differences (age, ethnicity, the fact that he lives in a basement, etc.).
I don’t think that her relationship with Max is primarily fraternal, or paternal, or whatever people think it is to justify their friendship and bond. Unlike her relationship with Hans, which is clearly paternal, Liesel’s relationship with Max is set to be one of parallels. He does not comfort her as a child, change her sheets when she wets the bed, or generally do the things that Hans, as a father, does for her. He cares for her, certainly. He wants to protect her – lying about who wins in his fights with the Führer, for instance. But mostly they meet on even ground. They talk about weather. They talk about the words.
Meeting as equals
“I think we are friends, the girl and me.”
“Together, Max Vandenburg and Liesel Meminger
would take in the odor of paint fumes and cement.”
Initially, Max, talking to his friend, writes her off as a child and a possible problem – “kids have big mouths.”
But Liesel does not fulfill his expectations of her. She behaves maturely, keeping his secret. At first, this may be under threat from her father, but later it’s more likely that she would have kept he secret, anyway. In the Hubermann basement, Max has only three people for company: Hans, Rosa, and Liesel. Liesel is closer to his age than either of her foster parents, and intelligent, though she’s still very young. She soon becomes his equal and friend. He respects her, and she respects him. At 24, he’s had a real job and serious girlfriends, but only hardly. They’re part of his life before he lived in the basement, and Max’s life before hiding evaporates into next to nothing (poor Max).
In these unusual circumstances, he’s able to see her as more than a child. She’s Liesel. She, on the other hand, does not see him as a normal, functioning adult in society. She only sees him as the poor, desperate Jew living in her basement - at least to begin with. Liesel’s definitely wary of him (I don’t have my copy on me as of this edit, but I think it’s perfectly illustrated in the scene where she has to take care of his waste – the line about other people’s urine always smelling worse than your own). Later, she sees him as Max (as evidenced by Max’s story “The Standover Man”, in which Liesel’s friendship gives Max an identity other than ‘the Jew’ – “The girl says I look like something else.”)
“ ‘Is it really you?’
Is it from your cheek, she thought, that I took the seed?
The man nodded.
His heart wobbled and he held tighter to the branches. ‘It is.’ ”
“For a long time, Liesel sat at the kitchen table and wondered
where Max Vandenburg was, in all that forest out there….
It was hours later, when she woke up, that
the answer to her question came.
“Of course,” she whispered. “Of course
I know where he is,” and she went back to sleep.”
“Hot tears fought for room in her eyes, as she would not let them out.
Better to stand resolute and proud. Let the words do
all of it. “ ‘Is it really you the young man asked’,”
she said. “ ‘Is it from your cheek that I took the seed?’” “
As Hans points out, both are fist fighters, and fighters in general. Both have nightmares about their pasts. Both have in some way experienced discrimination (Max as a Jew, Liesel as the daughter of Communists). Both have lost family. Both love words and recognize their power. They are the only two characters in the book to embody fully one of the book’s foremost themes: the power of the written word.
In fact, in “The Word Shaker”, Max writes about a ‘tree’ that Liesel builds with her words. They are the only people in the tree. Max and Liesel against the world. If words are at the very core of one’s soul, as they’re portrayed here, then Max and Liesel essentially occupy the same soul. Max gives Liesel his words. Liesel gives her words to Max. In some ways, this could be portrayed as the most intimate exchange throughout the book.
And then what happened?
“Finally, in October, 1945, a man with swampy eyes, feathers of hair,
and a clean-shaven face walked into the shop. He approached
the counter. “Is there someone here by the name of Liesel Meminger?”
…Liesel came out.
They hugged and cried and fell to the floor.”
love someone living in your basement, then comes… oh no! Word of God!)
There’s quite a lot of contention on the subject of marriage.
Some people think yes. Some people vehemently oppose the idea (see ‘squick!’, above).
One woman emailed Zusak about it. Not even Markus Zusak himself finds anything wrong with it. At least, he doesn’t say he does. The reason Liesel and Max aren’t, in his mind, married is because:
“…I really just felt like they needed to restart their lives fresh, alone and away from all of that mess. Also, I figured if Rudy couldn't have Liesel, no-one from that world could...”
Ah-ha! Clear bias toward the adorable Rudy Steiner! But I agree with this interpretation of the ending. My first read-through, I had the impression Liesel married someone completely unrelated to her experience in Germany. And really, that’s poignant and perfect. That this woman could pick up her life and move on to something new, instead of letting the old, heavy memories rule her life.
But Zusak kindly allows for open interpretation, which means he doesn’t squash the idea entirely for anyone who would prefer to think that Max and Liesel married:
“It's up to the reader, as characters in every book must live on in the minds of readers as they imagine where they might go.”
“I leave some things up in the air so that readers make the decisions once the book is done.”
If he really, really needed and wanted the reader to think that Liesel and Max were not married, he would have made it clear. It’s a valid question, after all. It sounds like he made it ambiguous on purpose.
Which, if nothing else, means he acknowledged that, in writing the book, that Liesel and Max might be perceived as having romantic interest in one another. And probably not in a “hey, some of my readers are going to be creeps, I better appease them” kind of way.
Hey. It’s something.
He wrote it, after all.
If I just ruined your life by telling you that, according to Word of God, they didn’t get married, I apologize. I’ve found some very good arguments for their marriage out there, like:
- Liesel doesn’t recall him as one of her “lanterns” in her death moments .
- Liesel moved to Sydney. This was apparently a common place for German Jews to flee post-war. After all, Liesel had a comfortable home available with Alex Steiner/the mayor’s wife, so why would she leave if not for Max?
- Liesel’s door is painted bright blue, which is Max’s color (i.e., it represents their shared passion for freedom/the sky that he couldn’t see while locked up in her basement).
Two of those get refuted by Zusak. Do not read if you still want to believe they’re together:
- “Max is not mentioned in 'Death and Liesel' in the epilogue because there is a tiny chapter simply called 'Max'…”
- “…because my mother did the same...It was her stories and those of my father that inspired the book”).
And if, like me, the Word of God is too strong for you, simply go read some fanfic. That always helps to soothe the pain.
Why I ship them
I first read The Book Thief a year ago, because, although it sounded depressing, I’d heard good things about it. I had no idea that every character would capture my heart like they did. I started thinking there was some chemistry between Max and Liesel about halfway through. I thought I was delusional.
But I so totally wasn’t.
Even though I had tears all over my face by the time I finished the book, the kiss of recognition that, of all characters, it was Max and Liesel who stood at the end, who cried and embraced, really made this book for me. I was really surprised he was still alive – I think I felt a little like Liesel did when he showed up at her doorstep (amazed, that after all this destruction one of the people she loved could still be alive). I didn’t have my shipper goggles on. I took the ending exactly as Zusak meant to present it: the idea that the husband was not Max, that Liesel married someone completely unrelated to her life in Germany. But it was perfect, a perfect conclusion for what I expected of their relationship (more, almost, considering that he was half-dead the last time she saw him).
The second time, I strapped those rose-tinted shipper goggles on tight. And this time, I saw everything. Everything. I re-read the snowman chapter, the Dachau chapter, and the reunion page multiple times. There was something beautiful in all of their interactions.
And that kind of subtext-focused reading leads to essays like these.
Insight/why to follow:
Max and Liesel get an essay where Rudy and Liesel would not because, frankly, they are not canon. They are only intriguing. They are only the hints of what might have been. They’re all subtext – they’re not open, let’s-get-married-and-kiss-now love. But, as I said above, Zusak gives hints and winks and even whole nudges toward the pairing. I don’t think that, to be important or true, the relationship of two characters has to be blatantly romantic. Or that, to be romantic, it has to be blatant. I feel that the fact that they had chemistry, cared deeply for one another, and kept each other in their lives is enough. That is what their relationship is. This essay focuses on the power of that relationship, and what might be its romantic inclination.
There's not much for The Book Thief, which makes me sad, but doesn't surprise me. Lots of people love this book, but it's not exactly prime fandom material (everyone dies, for one thing...).
- This is a lovely, short fic of their reunion after the ending. I feel like the style matches Zusak’ pretty well, which only makes it better.
- 'marriage theories' from here: http://turnpaige.com/2008/10/06/the-
- Markus Zusak quotes from here: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/
(NOTE: Or, at least, they were - please take those quotes with a grain of salt, as I now have no way of validating them, and was taking the woman posting them at her word. You can find someone mention the response here, and, in case that goes, too, here is a screencap of the mention: http://i159.photobucket.com/albums/t136/
- all other quotes from The Book Thief by Markus Zusak