Updated: Nov 8, 2020
Or: Thou Shalt Not Steal?
“I didn’t think it was stealing. I was almost sure it wasn’t.” (Nesbit 50)
Stealing seems to be one of the topics that come up again and again in children’s literature. No wonder, as the acknowledgement of (individual) ownership is one of the founding principles of Western societies: it’s capitalism at its most basic. This belongs to me, that belongs to you. If you want what I have, you have to work for it, pay for it. You might make it, you might not. It’s probably not a system that makes sense to most children from the get-go and it certainly isn’t fair. It’s not about what you need, what you can afford is what matters.
Ownership and (personal) property, then, are at the heart of our society and its structures. And they have been for a rather long time: stealing is, after all, one of the mortal sins (see also Nesbit 50). And for a long time, too, it has been harshly punished – in people and even animals. (Can a dog really ‘steal’ a loaf of bread, Mr. Dickens?) Property and money are well-protected, by the law, by social, ethical and moral concepts. The power and concern lie with the owner. But what about the people – or animals – who steal? The thieves? What about their motives? Their needs?
In Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children (1906), ten-year-old Peter is ‘mining’ the coal at the railway station. Though the coal belongs to the railway company, and is thus no personal property, it is associated with the kind station master who is responsible for it. When Peter is caught ‘black-handed’ by the latter, he defends himself: “I’m not a thief,” he insists, “I’m a coalminer” (49). He senses that he is doing wrong – and he is told that he is doing wrong –, but he allows himself to pretend that he is not: “I’m not at all sure, even now, that mining is a crime” (52). Two things come together here: the power of the word and make-believe – it’s not stealing as long as you don’t call it stealing –, one of the ways to escape the rules and regulations imposed by the grown-up world, and the boy’s ulterior motive. He doesn’t take the coal for the fun of it, but because his family, and especially his sick mother, need it to keep warm. Also, he works for it: “Not much lark carting that beastly heavy stuff up the hill” (51). Though Peter isn’t punished for his behaviour in the novel, he does suffer from a guilty conscience, which shows that he has already incorporated the moral concept of never taking anything that does not belong to you. No matter what the circumstances. Hence, punishment becomes unnecessary while forgiveness is granted as the ‘owner’ of the coal is benevolent towards the boy and the world returns to run in its natural course.
Does that mean, however, that Peter was wrong in taking the coal in the first place? Would it not have been more wrong to not try and help his mother as best he could? Who’s need it the greatest? And who’s need is more important – or, rather, essential? And to whom? In this brief mining episode, The Railway Children asks big questions and tells us a lot about British (and Western) society and its values at the turn of the twentieth century: eventually, it seems, property comes before people.
Almost exactly a hundred years later, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2005) looks at the issue of stealing from quite a different perspective. Liesel, the heroine of the story set in Nazi Germany, makes a career of stealing books:
When the dragging was done, the mother and the girl stood and breathed. There was something black and rectangular lodged in the snow. Only the girl saw it. She bent down and picked it up and held it firmly in her fingers. The book had silver writing on it. (32)
There are no ethical concerns, there is no guilty conscience. Liesel has nothing to lose, no respect to give: she has been separated from her communist father, her baby brother has just died, and her mother is about to deliver her to a foster family in a foreign part of the country.
The books Liesel takes are beautiful, remnants of a mostly lost culture, a love of learning and, ultimately, people. In the course of the story, the books she takes are reshaped, remade and re-owned. The first book she steals initially becomes a keepsake of the last moments she had with her brother and mother (45) and is later re-functionalised when Liesel’s new Papa uses it to teach the girl how to read and write (71). A souvenir and symbol of loss and helplessness turned into a means of empowerment and progress. Stealing the book is just the beginning of Liesel's journey towards finding her own voice, writing her own story (see 529). She eventually takes back what belonged to her in the first place: her dignity.
It certainly matters that Liesel takes books and books only: "Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are" (Milton n.p.). They are full of life, full of soul, even appear to have their own personality – and thus they never seem to quite belong to individual persons and the concept of ownership becomes, at best, a vague one. Even books that are propagandist attempts at brainwash can be turned into something valuable in Zusak's story: later on in the story, the family hides a Jew in their cellar, Max, who reshapes Hitler’s Mein Kampf, literally writing and drawing his and Liesel’s story over the pages (451-56). Again, it is more about re-owning than theft, reclaiming the lives that were stolen and lost. In The Book Thief, it seems to matter, after all, whom we are stealing what from and why we do so.
Paradoxically, this does not mean that property becomes unimportant, even from the viewpoint of a modern reader – if it did, stealing would cease to be understood as an act of rebellion on Liesel’s part –, but in the context of the story, it becomes a virtue. Stealing means to not give up, it means the refusal to be defined by a society in which people matter so little and are treated so abominably and inhumanely. People should come before property – and before ideology.
Not least through their opposition, both texts suggest that perspective matters in ethical questions in general, and seemingly firm boundaries may be pushed, tested and sometimes transgressed. While basic rules are necessary for a given society to function, its conceived truths and values must not be taken as naturally eternal or even right, questions must be asked, and rules sometimes broken. It is a part of the human project, a constant process of renegotiation.
So: is “mining […] a crime”?
Nesbit, Edith. The Railway Children. 1906. Wordsworth Editions, 2018.
Milton, John. "Aeropagitica." 1644. The John Milton Reading Room, http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/areopagitica/text.html. Accessed 27 October 2019.
Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. 2005. Black Swan, 2007.