If you missed my earlier post, I’ll briefly fill you in: read The Book Thief. It’s the best book I’ve ever read and one reason is the characters that fill its pages:
Liesel, the Book Thief
Rudy, the Book Thief’s best friend
Hans, Liesel’s foster father
Rosa, Liesel’s foster mother
Max, author of The Stand Over Man and The Word Shaker; Liesel’s friend
Hitler, creator of the hellish world that provides the backdrop for The Book Thief
Death, guy normally portrayed with the black robe and sickle, narrator of The Book Thief and a much more likable narrator than you could ever anticipate
I recently wrote about Rudy, a boy I’ve never met but love deeply. Today I’ll introduce you to Rosa, who is not all that she seems and yet is more than she seems.
Rosa could easily have been a caricature. In the hands of a writer less skilled than Markus Zusak, Rosa would be two-dimensional, sketched in to fill the space or trite. Instead, she’s a reminder to not judge someone by a tough façade. Rosa spends a good portion of The Book Thief swearing. Luckily, her swearing is done in German, so it wasn’t too off putting for me as the reader. But it still comes through loud and clear that she’s not a warm and fuzzy kind of foster mom. She’s not the stereotypical foster parent who just loves kids and misses having a young one around the house. Instead, she’s closer to the stereotype of the foster parent who takes in foster children for the paycheck. But as I said, Rosa’s not what she seems. We actually don’t ever find out exactly why Rosa and Hans take Liesel in, but we do come to know a bit of the real Rosa who hides behind the mask of the tough lady.
Rosa washes laundry for several other families and is married to Hans, a painter and accordion player. Her two children are grown and we see little of them over the course of the book. But we see a fair amount of Rosa. We see her trudge up and down the street to collect and deliver laundry. We see her lose one customer, then another, as the realities of the war set in. We see her stretch one pot of soup to feed three mouths, then four for an entire week. And we begin to see that Rosa is playing a role – not just for the reader, but for herself.
My favorite image of Rosa (who I imagine being roughly as wide as she is tall) is of her sitting on her bed in the middle of the night, holding an accordion on her lap. The room is dark and the accordion far too big to fit easily on her lap. But she holds it there and breathes with it and into it. She breathes into that accordion all of the tenderness that she pushes deep inside in order to keep the mask in place. She breathes into that accordion her dreams, her fears, her hopes. And while this is the mental picture of Rosa that I hold tight in my mind, when daylight breaks, she would not hold the accordion any longer, but a wooden spoon. Because that’s what women do – whether we’re named Rosa or Shannon – we breathe out our heart’s desires in the middle of the night and set them aside when daylight breaks. After all, there is work to be done.