Book Thief

Words are some of the most influential tools in the world, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak does nothing less than prove this. The Book Thief tells the story of the young Liesel Meminger. When he mother can no longer take care of her, Liesel is sent to a set of adoptive parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, who live on Himmel Street in Munich, Germany. The tale takes place at the height of the Second World War, during the Holocaust. During this time especially, words carry so much weight, and it is up to their creator as to which way they are spun. Simply saying one word in different contexts can change the entire polarity of that word, causing it to have either a positive or negative connotation. Sometimes, even, words can seem aligned in one fashion, but actually turn out to be a blessing, or a curse, in disguise. In The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, the power of words is thoroughly displayed as they are used both positively and negatively throughout the story.

The artfully woven piece of literature that Zusak has created contains many occasions in which the power of words is wielded positively. In the beginning of the book, Liesel is an illiterate eleven-year-old who wants nothing more than to be with her birth mother again and to get away from Himmel Street. However, at the funeral of her brother, Werner, who died on the train, Liesel, later aptly nicknamed “The Book Thief”, steals The Grave Digger’s Handbook. Later on, Hans finds the book, and suggests to Liesel that she is taught to read through the use of it. This is actually an example of how words can be used positively. In order to tame her nightmares, Hans gives Liesel the power of words, which also ends up being a part of the close bond forged between the two of them. Words can be formatted in so many different ways. They can be written, read, spoken, sung, taught, given as gifts, et cetera. Once Liesel became proficient in reading and writing the German language, she utilizes her skills in order to improve the lives of the people around her. For example, when the threat of an aerial assault comes within a reasonable range of Munich, there are several occasions on which the residents must evacuate into approved basements. Everyone is terrified, and Liesel, who has always witnessed her father, Hans, play the accordion to make people happy, decides to play her own version of the accordion. Zusak says this about Liesel reading in the basement: “She didn’t dare to look up, but she could feel their frightened eyes hanging on to her as she hauled the words in and breathed them out. A voice played the notes inside her. This, it said, is your accordion”(381). In a time of great stress and anxiety, Liesel uses the power of words to rein in everyone’s emotions. Words can be used to create extremely strong ties and bonds, as is demonstrated on that day in the basement. That event led to others like it, and even caused Frau Holtzapfel, a Himmel Street resident, to ask Liesel to read to her every so often. These readings helped form a bond between Liesel and Frau Holtzapfel, who went through some difficult times throughout the story. Words can bridge gaps, heal wounds, and tether people together, as is demonstrated several times throughout The Book Thief.

While there are several examples of words being used positively, The Book Thief is a book narrated by Death himself, so there are bound to be instances of the opposite. Around the middle of the story, a character named Max Vandenburg is introduced. Max just so happens to be the son of one of Hans’s old army friends, who just so happened to be a Jew. That word rubbed off onto Max. Because the Forties meant the Holocaust, it was not such a great time to be a Jew anywhere, let alone in the heartland of the Führer. Labels are a wonderful example of words used in negative ways. During the Holocaust it was the unfortunate truth that if you did not fit the description of the “ideal German”, blond hair, blue eyes, a Christian, et cetera, it was very likely that you would be persecuted. Just because the word Juden was part of who Max was, he had to hide in the Hubermann’s basement for an extremely long time. Another example of words being used negatively comes from the beginning of the war, when Adolf Hitler first began to plant the seeds of his ideals into the minds of people. In The Word Shaker, the story that Max wrote for Liesel, Hitler is described as deciding to use words against people. Zusak writes this referring to the spread of Hitler throughout Germany: “He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany… It was a nation of farmed thoughts”(445). The story of The Word Shaker tells of a young Hitler who was wandering about, trying to think of ways to conquer the world. When he witnessed a mother calming her child down, he recognized the true power of words. The Führer realized just how much words can affect someone, and decided to take advantage of it. This may all sound a little like George Orwell’s 1984 , and that is because it is frighteningly similar. Removing any semblance of rebellion from the minds of the Nazis through book burnings and the like is not a new notion. The idea that two simple words can come to have so much baggage that comes with them is a crazy one, yet it is true. Adolf Hitler, unfortunately, brought a nation to its knees with just the words “heil Hitler”.

While the polarity of words in The Book Thief is sometimes straightforward, they can occasionally be misleading. Whether words seem at surface level to be positive yet turn out negatively, or if it is the opposite, there are plenty of examples of this use of the power of words throughout the novel. First, an example of an initially positive use of words was Herr Steiner, Liesel’s neighbor, refusing to let Rudy, Liesel’s best friend, leave for a youth war training camp. This seemed wonderful at first, and yet Herr Steiner later realized the deadly mistake he had made. In the novel, Zusak describes Alex Stiener’s realization that he should have sent Rudy away like this: “You save someone. You kill them. How was he supposed to know”(547)? This is referring to Rudy not surviving the bombing of Himmel Street. If Rudy had been gone, he would have survived, but instead, Herr Steiner was sent away to war, which led to his survival. Ironic, is it not?However, sometimes the opposite is true. Seemingly unfortunate situations occur, and yet they reveal themselves to be a blessing in disguise later on. One example of this comes in the form of Rosa Hubermann. Rosa, Leisel’s adoptive mother, is known for using lots of vulgar language and frequently calling people Saumensches, which is likely one of the dirtiest German words there is. Because of this, many people likely would not appreciate being accused of being one. However, Rosa does not mean anything badly by it. In fact, it is likely just the opposite. Rosa Hubermann expresses a positive emotion, love, through a negatively connotated method, cursing. There are many other positive emotions that often hide behind negative ones. For example, admiration may hide behind reservation, hope may dance with fear, and love may bloom from hate. The human mind is capable of creating many emotions and words, both of which are very powerful tools.

Words can be created simply by the vibration of the vocal cords or by the scratch of a pen, and yet the impact they have on the world is one of legend. Entire movements are started with a few words, and entire empires can fall with one well-timed speech. The cliché goes that actions speak louder than words. However, does that statement really ring true? Sure, sometimes taking action may be inevitable, and yet are there not truly words to be found at the roots of all actions? Someone has to give the order to start the air strike. People must face the truth that what they say and write impacts everyone else in the world, no matter how insignificant they think they are. Look at Liesel, for example, who was just a communist’s daughter from Germany. She realized the true power of words, then used them for the betterment of her friends and family. That is how words should be used. Not in hateful, spiteful ways, but in ways of hope and equality. So be careful what is said, and be wary of the domino effect that the words may cause.