“To most people, Hans Huberman was barely visible. An un-special person….Not important or particularly valuable.”
The speaker is Death, the steely-yet-bemused narrator in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. But his description of this “un-special person” isn’t finished, as the phrase “to most people” intimates.
“The frustration of that appearance, as you can imagine, was its complete misleadance, let’s say. There most definitely was value in him, and it did not go unnoticed by Liesel Meminger.”
Liesel is a nine-year old girl. After her brother’s death and mother’s disappearance, Hans and his wife Rosa become her foster parents in this unforgettable novel set in Nazi Germany. Liesel measures her foster father’s worth on a child’s scale; she sees what adults, blinded by the indicators of status, often miss.
The grim narrator observes: “(The human child—sometimes so much cannier than the stupefyingly ponderous adult.) She saw it immediately.”
Liesel does not weigh Huberman’s worth by his age, his stature, his clothing or his position in the world. Instead, she observes the eyes of her “unimportant,” “barely visible” foster father. “They were made of kindness, and silver.”
“Liesel, upon seeing those eyes, understood that Hans Huberman was worth a lot.”
A delicious expectation slips between the syllables. If we follow Liesel to her tale’s conclusion, we sense that we, too, will be enriched by Hans Huberman’s silver. And that silver will be worth more than gold.
Isn’t that why readers read?
We read to feed the soul. Sure, we’re grateful for the skill enabling us to decode soup can labels and medication instructions. We appreciate the instant access Google has given us to facts and stats. We enjoy indulging in brain-candy that entertains and lifts our mood. But readers read for the slow, soul-enriching journey with its surprising touchpoints into the human condition.
Hans Huberman’s soft, silvery eyes can slip past the guarded heart’s gate, unlocking it from behind its bars of self-protection. Huberman may be an “un-special” man of fiction, but having seen him through Liesel’s eyes, we love him. Our souls expand.
Banal entertainment and reality-show politics can blind us to the silver-souled wonders all around us. Reading reminds us that kind eyes can cue a child to the worth of an apparently “un-special” person. It reminds us that a child’s view is worth seeking.
At this point in the story The Book Thief opened an unexpected portal to my childhood, to the memory of my own silver-eyed Grandpa Walter who delighted in giving little children pond rides in his apple red canoe. Who bordered his vegetable garden with zinnias and marigolds. Who once called my attention to the loveliness of a luna moth’s wing. Who loved the woods of western New York, and loved it more when he took the boy would become my father hunting. Whose occasional German phrases still pepper our family’s conversation—schmalz und apple butter.
Now I love Hans Huberman, and I return to the page. I love Liesel through his tender care for her. The Book Thief elevates the little lives, absent from history’s narrative, each paying a terrible price for the decisions of their nation’s leaders. As I continue reading, I will come to love Rudy Steiner and his hero Jesse Owens; I will love Max Vandenberg, the Jewish man the Hubermans hide in their basement. It will take a while, but I will come to love Rosa Huberman despite her harshness, and I will even love Ilsa Hermann, the mayor’s wife, rich and lost and lonely.
And I will love books and reading and writing even more than I already did. The Book Thief is nuanced with book moments–from the gravedigger’s book Liesel snatches from the ground to the luxurious library in the mayor’s house, to the public book burnings of the Nazis, to the books Max and Liesel will create. The Book Thief illuminates why we treasure a good read, why good writing is a grace, and why our own stories are worth telling.
The Book Thief is a compelling tale, tender and tragic. It is rich with the mysteries of the human heart: the development of our loves, our sudden bursts of courage, our twisted, painful failures, our unexpected moments of mercy. It is about our helplessness at the moment of death, which as Christ noted about the rain (in another context), “falls on the just and the unjust alike.” This truth, far from making life an unimportant thing, makes the living of a just life all the more beautiful and essential.
“Death is actually telling this story to prove that humans can be beautiful and selfless and worthwhile,” says Zusak in a promotion interview for The Book Thief’s Tenth Anniversary.
Indeed. The Book Thief stole my heart.
The Audible edition of The Book Thief is narrated with absolute perfection by Allan Corduner.
For a taste for Zusak’s way with words, the YouTube video “Best Quotes from The Book Thief” by Epic Reads is short, sweet and inspiring: