Study Guide

The Book Thief

by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief Summary

Summary

The Book Thief

The Book Thief opens in a very unique way, with the narrator, who turns out to be Death, introducing himself. He begins rather ominously, stating the fact that "you are going to die." As he continues, he explains some of the details of his work collecting people's souls from their bodies. Most of the time, Death does not take too much notice of humans or their lives on earth, but occasionally, a soul here or there piques his interest. One such girl is the main character of the novel, nine-year-old Liesel Meminger. The story is set in Germany during World War II. Liesel's father was taken away because of suspicions that he was a communist. At the beginning of the story, Liesel is on a train with her mother and brother; during the journey, Liesel's little brother dies. This is when Death first takes notice of her, and the rest of the novel is his narration of the succeeding years of her life. The novel is set in Molching, Germany, where Liesel goes to live with foster parents during the war; being with her mother was not safe, since as the wife of a communist, she could also be taken away. Most of the events of the story take place in this town, with Death occasionally stepping in to provide relevant background information and stories about key characters.

At her brother's funeral, Liesel steals her first book, The Gravedigger's Handbook, accidentally dropped by a cemetery worker. Seeing this furtive deed, Death labels her "the book thief." Throughout the course of the story, Liesel steals several other books and stays true to her nickname. After the funeral, Liesel says goodbye to her mother, and travels to the home of Hans and Rosa Hubermann, a middle-aged couple who take her in, and play the role of her foster parents. Hans, a good-natured, kind man, earns a living painting houses and stores; in his spare time, he plays the accordion for pay. Rosa, his wife, earns money doing other people's laundry. She is a foul-mouthed, rough character who nonetheless loves Liesel in her own way. Liesel has nightmares every night about her brother's death; each night, to distract her from her dreams, Hans tells her stories and teaches her how to read. The first book that Liesel reads is the one she stole from the cemetery. Later, she steals another book at a Nazi book-burning rally in the town's main square. Using these books as a guide, Hans teaches Liesel to read. Liesel practices writing by using paint on the basement walls downstairs.

Liesel...

(The entire section is 1012 words.)

The Book Thief Chapter Summaries

Prologue and Part 1 Summary

In the Prologue, the narrator of The Book Thief introduces himself as Death and reminds the reader that everyone is going to die someday; he urges the reader to not be afraid. Death says his job is hard and that he is saved only by having distractions—he cannot stand to look at the survivors because he pities them. He introduces the story to come as one that will be about a girl, words, an accordionist, fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and thievery. Death meets the book thief three times. The first time is on a train where he has gone to carry away the soul of the book thief’s little brother. Years later, Death meets her again when he comes to escort a pilot who has died. The last time, the book thief stands on the rubble of her home that has been destroyed by bombs, and Death wants to comfort her. Death is often reminded of the book thief, and he has kept her story to retell.

In Part One, Death outlines the parameters of the book thief’s story. It is January 1939, and Liesel Meminger is riding on a train with her mother and little brother, Werner, when he falls ill and dies. The family exits the train and buries Werner in a nameless town in the presence of a priest and two grave diggers. Liesel and her mother then board another train heading for Munich, where Liesel will meet her foster parents—her mother can no longer care for her. At the station, Liesel is delivered to the authorities and taken to a small town called Molching, where the Hubermanns reside on Himmel Street. Her foster parents are Rosa, a brash woman who often swears, and Hans, a tall, gentle man. They take Liesel into their home unaware that she has already become a thief—Liesel has taken The Gravedigger’s Handbook from the scene of Werner’s burial.

Rosa often calls Liesel a “saumensch” (filthy pig), and she seeks comfort from Hans, now her Papa, who sits with her at night to keep away her nightmares. Papa often plays his...

(The entire section is 579 words.)

Part 2 Summary

Death reports that Liesel stole her first book on January 13, 1939, and more than a year passed before she stole her second. On April 20, 1940—Hitler’s birthday—Liesel sees a group of German soldiers burning a pile of books. From the heap of ashes she takes a copy of The Shoulder Shrug.

Papa successfully teaches Liesel how to read, and together they finish The Gravedigger’s Handbook. Liesel confides in Papa and tells him about the death of Werner. For Christmas that year, Papa gives Liesel two more books: Faust the Dog and The Lighthouse. While eating in the kitchen, Liesel asks Papa how he managed to afford the books, and Rosa, whom Liesel now regards as Mama, tells her that Hans traded cigarettes with a gypsy to buy the books. Hans is also able to trade cigarettes for eggs, which Rosa cooks while uncharacteristically singing.

However, the good times soon end as the war continues and money gets tight. Rosa has been washing and ironing clothes for several families in the area, and one by one they dismiss her services. Liesel continues to carry the washing for Rosa’s remaining customers during the day. One night she feels lonely and decides to pen a letter to her mother. But her mother never replies, and Hans is so moved by the girl’s sadness that he decides to forge a letter from her mother.

The sadness continues as Hitler’s birthday approaches and the German forces get ever stronger. Soldiers now walk the streets, and the Hubermanns are afraid they will be arrested because they cannot find their flag. The Hubermanns’ son, Hans Junior, comes for a visit and accuses his father of never supporting the Nazi party. Liesel then puts on her Hitler Youth uniform and goes to a party assembly. During the speeches, Liesel continues to think about all the sadness in her life, and she repeatedly thinks about the word “Kommunisten.” Liesel wonders if the Fuhrer took her mother away, and she says that she hates him. Liesel feels like she is going to vomit and then attempts to leave the crowd. A hand grabs her—it is Ludwig Schmeikl, who has fallen and twisted his ankle. She helps him get to a safe place in the crowd. They manage to get to the church steps and from there they watch a pile of books burn that have been set afire by the officers. Papa finds her on the steps, and they make the journey home. On the way, they pass the pile of ashen books, but Liesel sees that there are three that look virtually untouched by the flames—“survivors.” Liesel snatches The Shoulder Shrug from the pile. She slips it under her uniform, and although it is cool at first, the book heats up against her skin. She hides the fact that the book is burning her skin.

Part 3 Summary

On the way home, Liesel can no longer take the pain of the hot book, so she takes it out and confesses to Papa that she has stolen the book. He promises that he will teach her how to read it in the basement so that they are undetected. In return, Papa asks that Liesel keep any secret that he might share with her. Soon after, Hans goes to the recruiter’s office to sign up for military service so that his family is not suspected of being against the Nazi regime, and he is given a tattered copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Paranoia has taken over Molching, but Liesel has her own worries. She is afraid of being caught for her stealing, and she thinks that she is being punished for her crimes by having to go to the mayor’s house to see about the washing. Liesel tells Mama that no one is ever home, but Mama keeps sending Liesel back to the house. Finally, the mayor’s wife, Ilsa Hermann, opens the door on one of Liesel’s visits, and instead of giving Liesel the washing, Ilsa invites her into the home to see the library. She allows Liesel to go the bookshelves and run her fingers over the spines. On the way home, Liesel remains dazed by having been in a room full of books.

The setting shifts to a small, dark, enclosed room away from Himmel Street—the place where a Jewish man named Max Vandenburg is being hidden by friends. Max sits on his suitcase in the dark and waits to be given the occasional piece of bread or other provision by his friend Walter Kugler. It takes a long time, but Walter finally arrives with a bag of bread, fat, and carrots and a bottle of water. He also brings a book that contains a forged identity card that Walter has secured for Max's escape. Then he leaves and Max is once again left in the darkness.

Back on Himmel Street, Liesel spends the summer of 1940 enjoying her reading of The Shoulder Shrug and visiting Ilsa’s library. As the summer continues and food rations become ever smaller, Rudy and Liesel take to stealing food, and the two climb a fence surrounding an apple farm to quiet their hunger.

Meanwhile, time has run out for Max—Walter must flee the city, so he leaves Max with one last package containing shaving supplies and a train ticket. Max takes the train to Molching and arrives at Himmel Street, afraid to ask the Hubermanns to risk their lives to save his.

Part 4 Summary

Walter Kugler arrives at the Hubermanns’ home and is standing in the kitchen with Hans when he asks Hans if he still plays the accordion. Of course, Hans still plays—he learned in World War I. It was during the war when Hans was twenty years old that Death first ran across Hans’s path. So many young soldiers died during the war, but Hans kept himself in the middle of other men, so he never came close to dying. A German Jew named Erik Vandenburg taught Hans to play the accordion, and the two men became friends. Erik nominated Hans for a writing job which spared Hans from going into battle that day—everyone else in the troop died in battle. Hans inherited Erik’s accordion. After the war, Hans returned to his job as a...

(The entire section is 599 words.)

Part 5 Summary

Death does not like mystery, so he reveals the fact that Rudy will die from a bombing and that Liesel will kiss Rudy's dusty lips as he lies in the wreckage. But for now, Death decides to detail the events leading up to the book The Whistler floating down the Amper River before Rudy jumped into the frigid water to save it.

Max needs his hair cut, so Liesel obliges. Later, while at Frau Hermann’s library, Liesel imagines telling her that a Jew is hiding in her basement. At home, Liesel is fascinated by Max, and she watches his mannerisms. She asks him to quiz her on the words that she continues to spell wrong. In return, Max asks her to describe the condition of the weather outside. Although Hans and Rosa go...

(The entire section is 416 words.)

Part 6 Summary

In Death’s diary, it is 1942, and Death claims that he needed a broom or a mop that year as the war moved closer to Himmel Street. Liesel turns 13 this year, and Max still resides in the basement. It is winter, and she carries down buckets of snow to Max so that they can make a snowman and have a snowball fight. But that night, Max falls terribly ill, and he gets worse over the next couple months. The Hubermanns move Max upstairs to Liesel’s room, taking care to avoid having anyone see him through the windows. Liesel prays that Max does not die. He sleeps much, and on few occasions, he opens his eyes and groans. Liesel reads to Max from The Whistler. Rosa finally cannot take Liesel’s worrying and sends her out to...

(The entire section is 592 words.)

Part 7 Summary

By the summer of 1942, Molching is well underway preparing for the coming war. Liesel joins Hans at work, painting people's windows black. Many do not have money to pay, so Hans takes trinkets and favors in return for his work. And while Liesel works, Rudy runs and dreams of getting four gold medals just like Jessie Owens. In mid-August at the summer carnival, Rudy wins the 1500 meter race, then the 400 and 200. Rudy claims that he is not tired, but then he false-starts the 100 meter race and is disqualified. When Liesel asks him why, he does not answer, and the two never talk about the race again.

Soon Liesel finishes reading The Dream Carrier, and she has a craving to take yet another book from the mayor’s...

(The entire section is 658 words.)

Part 8 Summary

The officers talk to the Steiners in their kitchen and try to convince the family that Rudy’s service would be an honor to the country. Rudy and his sisters play dominoes in the other room, and before Rudy can intervene, the officers leave. At school, Rudy and his classmates are stripped naked and inspected by a nurse who exclaims that Germany is creating a new generation of physically and mentally advanced citizens. When Rudy tells Liesel the story, she cannot stop thinking about it.

Meanwhile, Hans continues to feel guilty about his actions that led to Max’s having to leave, and then one day his formal punishment arrives—he is accepted into the Nazi Party and drafted into the army. Later Liesel learns that...

(The entire section is 628 words.)

Part 9 Summary

Liesel returns to the Hermanns’ home to steal another book, and once in the room, Liesel sees that Ilsa has apparently left out a plate of cookies for her. She writes a brief “Thank you” note and steals a book titled The Last Human Stranger. Liesel is on her way out the window when Ilsa Hermann enters the room. Liesel realizes that the library belongs only to Ilsa—not to her husband—and Ilsa admits that she used to read to her son in the library. Liesel asks Ilsa if she has read the book in her hand, and after stating that she has in fact read the book, Ilsa tells Liesel that she must hurry out the window because Rudy is waiting for her outside.

It is the middle of January 1943, and Liesel walks over...

(The entire section is 516 words.)

Part 10 Summary

It was raining when the end of the world came for Liesel Meminger. The gray, metal planes opened and bombs were dropped off-target. Himmel Street was destroyed. All were sleeping when the onslaught occurred. Only one person survived: Liesel had been sitting in the basement reading her life story and editing the mistakes. After the house collapsed, Liesel beat her pencil against a paint can to alert the police. They dug her out of the rubble as she kicked and screamed, desperately clutching the book that had saved her life. They were ecstatic to have found someone alive. Meanwhile, Death had carried away the souls of her mama and papa and the souls of everyone else on the street.

A few months before the destruction of...

(The entire section is 608 words.)

Epilogue Summary

Death is always busy—“the world is a factory.” The last fact of this story is that Liesel, the book thief, died only yesterday. Liesel lived to a very old age; her long life carried her far away from Himmel Street in Molching, Germany, to Sydney, Australia. She died with “her soul sitting up,” just like Hans. In the moments before her death, Liesel envisioned her children, her grandchildren, and all those whom she loved at one point or another in her life like the Hubermanns and her little brother. She also envisioned her time on Himmel Street so long ago.

After the street was cleared, Liesel had nowhere to go and no one left to care for her. She was called “the girl with the accordion” when she was taken...

(The entire section is 465 words.)