For those of you that don’t know, Liesel Meminger is the protagonist of Markus Zusak’s brilliant 2005 novel, The Book Thief. Set in Nazi Germany, the story follows the early adolescence of Liesel, a young girl sent to live with foster parents who end up hiding a Jewish man in their basement at the height of the Second World War. Narrated by Death itself (which is pretty damn metal), the book covers Liesel’s adjustment to her new life, the trials and tribulations of poverty and young love, and of course, Liesel’s fight against the casual evil perpetrated by the Nazis. The book was positively littered with awards – even though it stomps all over my feelings – and was made into a film in 2013, which cannot really use the word ‘litter’ in such a positive sense. Regardless, the book remains a classic of YA literature. Liesel herself has been praised as a truly memorable character – one that displays far more depth than most of her YA contemporaries – and as an incredibly realistic portrayal of a teenage girl in the midst of war.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
For the most part, Liesel isn’t really in control of her own destiny, especially in a larger sense. She’s a young girl living under a totalitarian regime: this is fairly normal, and is something we’ve seen in both child characters and characters living under oppressive governments. When we first meet Liesel, we see her being forcibly taken away from her Communist mother and sent to live with a foster family. Later in the novel, she has to join organisations such as the League of German Girls (or BDM, in German), simply because not doing so would arouse suspicion from the Nazi authorities. She is also forced into helping to hide the Jewish man in her basement: her foster parents offered him shelter, and if she doesn’t want them to be taken away she has no choice but to help them. Throughout most of the novel Liesel’s hand is forced by things that are much bigger than her, whether that’s an oppressive state or an Allied bombing raid.
However, on a smaller scale she has much more control. She asserts her position with the neighbourhood children by beating them up. When she’s hungry, she decides to go and steal food with some friends. She steals an unburnt book from the ashes of a Nazi bonfire, and goes on to steal more – earning her title in every sense of the word. Some aspects of her story are beyond her control, but some are not – so in this respect, I’m giving her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 0.5
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Liesel’s hobbies are actually very well established. At the beginning of the novel she enjoys football and fighting, but as the book progresses she learns to read, and this – along with writing a book of her own – becomes one of her favourite pastimes. In fact, her love of books fuels her right through the story, also supplying one of her principal goals: to steal books.
As far as the rest of her goals and beliefs go, most of these are things that develop as a result of her circumstances. She also works to keep the Jewish man in her basement – Max Vandenburg – hidden from the authorities, but this is more the result of her desire to keep her foster family safe, too. She is firmly against the Nazi Party’s beliefs, but must keep this a secret for most of the book. This, too, is the result of her friendship with Max, but also because of the fact that Liesel was taken away from her Communist mother by the Nazi authorities. These are all well-developed aspects of her character, so I’m giving her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1.5
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Liesel is a very consistent character. She’s sharp, shrewd, quick to fight, has a strong sense of justice, is very resourceful and hates to be laughed at. She’s also kind, suffers from regular nightmares and always takes a while to really open up to people. In terms of her skills, the reader is always made very aware of Liesel’s reputation as something of a scrapper, and this is reflected in what we see. She’s always good at football and is always better at fighting. However, her love of reading and writing is something that develops over the course of the book.
When we first meet Liesel she can’t read at all. It’s established that she comes from a very poor family, and that, combined with her parents’ background as political dissidents, means that it’s unlikely that she ever went to school. When she is put into school after being placed with her foster family, she’s immediately confronted with the fact that all the children her own age are years ahead of her in terms of education. Liesel has to catch up, and this is a process we see her struggling with for at least half the book. Liesel’s love of words is hard-won and something that she continually works at, so I’m giving her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 2.5
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A shrewd, cautious young girl attempts to survive under Nazi rule by shielding herself with words.
SCORE SO FAR: 3.5
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Liesel’s love life isn’t a huge feature of the story. For most of the book, the reader is incredibly aware of her young neighbour – Rudy Steiner – who has the most enormous crush on Liesel ever committed to the page. They become best friends – mainly through kicking and swearing at each other – but Liesel doesn’t reciprocate Rudy’s feelings for most of the book. She has far too much going on: getting over the death of her six-year-old brother, adjusting to life with her new foster family, coming to terms with the fact that she will never see her biological mother again, and making sure that Max doesn’t die in her basement. For the most part, Rudy is fine with this. He’s content to be her friend, and after a while he stops bugging her to kiss him. Liesel’s feelings for him creep up on her much later in the book – and by that point, unfortunately, it is too late.
So Liesel’s love life isn’t really a factor. It’s in the background of her story, and only comes to the fore when tragedy strikes in the form of an Allied bombing raid. What really motivates Liesel through the bulk of the book is her desire to learn to read, to steal books, not to go hungry, to keep Max – and her adopted parents – safe. This last one is what really drives her; having been separated from one parent once before, she doesn’t want to go through it again. For much of the book romantic love isn’t her main motivator: familial love is. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 4.5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Liesel does develop over the course of the story. She learns to read – not without difficulty – and comes to appreciate the power of words, and the freedom they give her. She comes to love her new foster family, especially her adopted father, Hans Hubermann. She comes to understand the difficulties of living under a totalitarian regime without hope of escape, and devises her own ways of rebelling against that, no matter how small they might be. That’s some solid development on all counts, so she passes this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 5.5
- Does she have a weakness?
One of Liesel’s main weaknesses is a tendency to lash out at people – whether that’s verbally or physically. She lets her temper get away with her and ends up regretting it, and this is something that has real consequences for her all throughout the story. She’s also a raging kleptomaniac – perhaps unsurprisingly, for the protagonist of a novel called The Book Thief – and frequently uses this as a way of making herself feel better. She very rarely thinks these thefts through – when she fishes a book out of a Nazi bonfire she stuffs it down her shirt, literally singeing her skin – and this gets her into trouble, too. Not with me, though – she’s passed this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 6.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Because much of The Book Thief is set in the Second World War, a substantial amount of the novel’s more significant events are the results of things that Liesel cannot control – but I’ve already discussed this in an earlier question. Liesel’s smaller-scale influence on the plot is much more tangible, but ultimately, it falls into the same traps I discussed in question one. Her impulsive thievery and desire to stick it to the man in her own quiet way does influence the plot, but only to a certain extent. I’ll do what I did for question one and give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 7
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Liesel doesn’t really fit with many established gender stereotypes. She’s a bruiser, a thief, she’s often dirty, she has regular nightmares about the trauma of her past, she wets the bed at an age that most children have grown out of it and she expresses her affection by swearing at people. At the same time, she also displays a considerable maturity and intellectual capacity that isn’t always seen in the traditional stereotypes surrounding young girls, and her story is far more political than the plotlines given to most young girls as well. The fact that she is a young girl doesn’t substitute for her personality, so she passes this round with flying colours.
SCORE SO FAR: 8
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Liesel doesn’t have a huge amount of relationships with other women – most of her relationships are with men. That said, she still manages to have some very interesting and varied relationships with a diverse range of female characters. She’s exasperated by her adopted mother – they frequently butt heads and don’t get along at first, but they come to really love each other. She misses her biological mother, and at first wonders why she gave her up, but eventually realises that this was beyond her mother’s control, and that she will never see her again. She steers clear of her neighbour Frau Holtzapfel, whom her mother hates, but eventually ends up reading to her when she loses her sons to war in two very different ways. Her relationship with the mayor’s wife is the most interesting – it fluctuates between nervousness, contempt and a genuine friendship over the course of the book – but ultimately, Liesel forms a strong bond with her. This is a really good example of how a novel with mostly male characters can still allow interesting and varied relationships between female characters to develop, so I’m giving it the point.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10
Liesel is a well-developed character with solid goals, beliefs and hobbies, a range of strengths and weaknesses who remains consistent throughout her story. She has a wide range of relationships with a wide range of female characters, doesn’t uphold old gender stereotypes, and has to work for the things she wants. She may not always be in control of her own destiny, but she’s certainly passed my test!
Next week, I’ll be returning to my comparison format to look at one of the oldest characters in literature. Cinderella, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.