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.
(The entire section is 228 words.)
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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 accordion, to Rosa’s distaste. But Rosa is only one of Himmel Street’s many characters, and soon Liesel meets a boy named Rudy Steiner who likens himself to Jesse Owens. He is a fast runner, and one day he even covered himself in charcoal to mimic the Olympic star. Just like the other poor children who live on Himmel Street, Rudy is always hungry. When Liesel and Rudy are in the street together, they often see signs of the turmoil in Germany: rows of soldiers marching and the “road of...
(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...
(The entire section is 482 words.)
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.
(The entire section is 437 words.)
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 painter, and he and Rosa had two children, Han Junior and Trudy. As the Nazi party took power, Hans lost business and submitted to joining the party in 1937. Now, Kugler asks Hans if he is a man who keeps his promises. They arrange a meeting for later in the night.
It is November 1940 when Max arrives at the Hubermanns’ home. Max grew up in Stuttgart where he had his first fist fight at eleven years old with a boy named Wenzel Gruber. After suffering the loss of his uncle, Max fought more often. His favorite fight was against Walter Kugler. The two fought thirteen times over the next few years. Eventually, the Nuremberg Laws were instated, barring Jews from having German citizenship. Max and Walter saw each other infrequently while Max tried to find work. Many Jewish establishments were destroyed, and one day a man dressed in a Nazi uniform arrived at the Vandenburg home. It was Walter who had come to take Max into hiding. Max left his family behind, but the guilt over his actions remained. He stayed in hiding for two years before ending up in the Hubermanns’ home.
Liesel hears Rosa’s expression from the kitchen, and when she goes inside, she sees Max hungrily slurping Rosa’s infamous pea soup from a bowl. Rosa watches him with a hint of satisfaction and worry, but Max’s stomach is not used to large amounts of food. After finishing the soup, he vomits in the sink. Rosa rushes to clean up the mess, and Max apologizes, sitting back down at the table looking morose. Liesel wonders about the true nature of her foster parents. Later, Hans comes into the bedroom to talk to Liesel about their new visitor. Max sleeps in the bedroom that night, and in the morning, Hans wakes Liesel to tell her that she...
(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 to the basement on occasion to see and speak to Max, the times when Liesel comes into the basement are most appreciated. Alone for most of the day, Max decides that he needs new projects to occupy his mind and body, so he takes to exercise and fantasizing about being a boxer in the ultimate fight against the Fuhrer. Another project includes ripping the remaining pages from Mein Kampf to be painted and written over. Together, Max and Liesel write The Word Shaker on the newly painted pages.
One day, Liesel finds a newspaper and brings it home for Max to read. In one article, Heinz Hermann, the mayor, is quoted as saying that all responsible Germans should prepare for hard times. A week later, Liesel goes to Frau Hermann’s house, and Frau Hermann insists that she keep the copy of The Whistler. She also gives Liesel an envelope with money for Rosa. Liesel knows that this sign means that the mayor’s wife must cancel Rosa’s washing service. Liesel is angered by Frau Hermann’s pity, so she returns to the house, tells the mayor’s wife that she should be ashamed of herself because she lives in a mansion while others are poor, and throws the book at her feet. When the door closes in front of her, Liesel balls up the letter that Frau Hermann has written for Rosa and flings it at the door. At home, Liesel tells Rosa that she insulted the mayor’s wife and that is why Rosa was fired, but Rosa does not believe her lie. Later, Liesel tells Hans that she thinks she is going to hell for her bad actions.
(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 play soccer with Rudy.
In the street, a random car passes, crushing the ball, and Liesel carries it home as a present for Max. This starts a string of presents that Liesel brings to Max: a ribbon, a pinecone, a button, a stone. On her way to and from school, Liesel is always on the lookout for new presents: a feather, two newspapers, a candy wrapper. One day, she even gives Max the gift of a cloud in the form of a story during one of her bedside vigils. Liesel gives Max the next couple gifts, a toy soldier and a leaf, before she finishes reading The Whistler to him.
One afternoon standing near the Amper River, Liesel tells Rudy that she wants to take another book from the mayor’s library. It is a gray, March day—perfect for stealing. Liesel and Rudy survey the house and see a light on inside the kitchen. They circle the block a few times on their bicycles, and as it gets late, Liesel decides that she is not leaving without a book. She climbs through the window to the library and steals The Dream Carrier, all the while thinking of Max and the horrors of his life. She and Rudy hurry home. Every day, Liesel reads two chapters of the book. She offers the story to Max in the hopes that it will sustain him. The Hubermanns must have the conversation about what they will do if Max dies. Liesel walks away and simply says, “He’s not dead yet.” Later, Rosa shows up at Liesel’s school and pretends to scold her for stealing a hairbrush, but she reveals that Max is now awake. At home, Max is sitting up holding the deflated soccer ball. Liesel tells him of her nightmares then she reads to him until he falls asleep. And although Liesel feels a great relief that Max is on the mend, she...
(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 library. She returns on a sunny morning; inside the library, she runs her fingers over the spines and reads the titles to herself before settling on A Song in the Dark. She takes the book and reads the first four chapters while sitting beside the Amper River. The following week, Rudy comes to fetch Liesel—in the window of the mayor’s library is a large bound book, a copy of the Duden Dictionary and Thesaurus. Of course Liesel takes the book, and inside Rudy finds a letter. Ilsa Hermann has written to say that she knows Liesel has been stealing books and that she hopes one day Liesel will approach the house to enter the library in a more civilized manner. She goes back to the house but cannot bring herself to knock on the door. She feels some guilt, but she is too happy with the way that things have turned out, so she rides home instead.
In September, the sirens wail, and the Hubermanns must leave to hide in the basement of a neighbor's home while Max stays behind in their basement. The Hubermanns are among 22 people who cram inside the Fiedlers' basement. Liesel notes the fear and apprehension among them. After a while the sirens die, and everyone goes back to their own homes. The Hubermanns immediately check on Max, who remains hidden in the basement. A couple weeks later, another raid is made on Molching, but this time the situation is more serious and bombs are heard down the street. Liesel has a book with her, so she reads to stop the fearful crying of the children in the Fiedlers’ basement. When the raid is over, the Hubermanns again return home and tell Max about what they have seen and heard. Liesel is not comforted by the fact that should a raid destroy Himmel Street, Max would...
(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 Rudy’s father was also drafted because they refused to allow Rudy to join the Party. The evening before they leave home, Alex Steiner and Hans Hubermann get themselves very drunk, and Hans goes to the wrong house on his way home. Once inside the house, Hans goes into the basement. The next morning, Liesel and Rosa find him asleep on drop sheets on the floor—he felt he did not deserve to sleep in Max’s old bed. Hans leaves on the train to fulfill his service with low spirits.
Rudy is upset by his father’s having to leave, so he fetches Liesel and tells her he wants to go find his father. Liesel knows this is a ridiculous stunt, so she leaves Rudy’s side to march back home. He catches up to her, and Liesel feels that her heart is tired from so much hurt. When Liesel and Rudy arrive back on Himmel Street, Rosa and Ms. Steiner are waiting out in the street, and both are visibly angry. Later that night, Liesel is awakened by a loud noise. When she pursues it, she finds Rosa in bed with Hans’ accordion strapped to her chest. Liesel knows there will be many more nights like this to come.
Neither Alex Steiner nor Hans Hubermann are sent into battle: Alex is set to repair uniforms, and Hans is put on the Air Raid Special Unit, which he will later find out is more appropriately named the Dead Body Collector Unit. Soon Hans realizes that he needs to learn the art of forgetting.
Back at home, Liesel cannot forget, and her days are consumed by thoughts of the well-being of Max, Alex, and Hans. The Nazi soldiers again march a group of prisoners through the streets of Molching on the way to Dachau. Rudy wants to help but has learned from Hans’s mistake, so he runs well ahead of the line of...
(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 to Frau Holtzapfel’s house to read to her. She is greeted at the door by a strange man who tells her that he will come to fetch her when Frau Holtzapfel is ready to receive company. He later arrives at the Hubermanns’ home—Michael Holtzapfel is lucky to have returned from the war when his brother was not so lucky. Rosa is shaken by the news of the brother’s death. Michael tells Rosa he heard that her son was still alive, but Rosa waves Michael and Liesel away. The two go back to the Holtzpafels’ house, and Liesel reads to Frau Holtzapfel to ease her troubles.
Liesel returns the cleaned cookie plate to Ilsa Hermann, and on the way home, Liesel sits by the Amper River and laments the fact that her dead brother will remain, in her mind, six years old forever. At home in her dreams, Liesel sees all those whom she has loved: Rudy, Max, and her little brother Werner. In the morning, Liesel wishes that they all would come back into her life—alive.
Hans manages to escape death, even when the driver of a truck in which he is traveling loses control of the vehicle and another man loses his life. Hans’s superior officer tells him that he plans to recommend that Hans is not fit for service and that he should be transferred to an office in Munich. Hans broke a leg when the truck rolled, so he will be sent home for a while to rest. When Rosa and Liesel share the news with Mrs. Steiner, she is happy, but the question remains, “Why Hans Hubermann and not Alex Steiner?”
His father still absent, Rudy only grows increasingly angry, and he takes out his anger by challenging Liesel’s theft. A few weeks later, bombs fall, and everyone exits their homes when the sirens sound. When it...
(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 Himmel Street, signs of the worst to come are delivered. Another line of Jewish prisoners is paraded through Molching, this time from the opposite direction. The prisoners are being taken to Nebling to do cleanup work left behind by the army. Liesel looks for Max, but she does not see him this time. Many souls seek Death and ask him to take them away. Later, a returned soldier, Michael Holzapfel, is discovered hanging from the rafters in a local laundry. He could not take the guilt of living. Frau Holzapfel collapses in the street in despair.
Later, Liesel sees another crowd of prisoners being paraded through Molching, and strangely, one of the men looks out into the crowd with such purpose. Liesel steps into the street and says to the man next to her, “He’s looking for me.” Liesel calls out to Max, runs through the parade, and grabs Max’s arm. The Nazis had caught Max three months prior on his way to Stuttgart. Max warns Liesel, but she will not leave his side, prompting a soldier to push through the parade towards them. He drags her out of the parade and throws her into the crowd of onlookers. Liesel will not give up, and she enters the parade from the back. When she finds Max again, he stops walking and kisses her hand. Then comes the soldier’s whip, and Liesel falls to the ground. After Rudy comes to her rescue and lifts her to her feet, she still tries to run toward the parade to Max. The soldier turns to deliver another blow, but Rudy pushes Liesel out of the way and takes the blow himself. The two are left in each other’s arms in the middle of the street. Liesel stays in bed for days, but when she rises, she takes Rudy to a grove of trees and tells him the truth about Max.
(The entire section is 608 words.)
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 to the police station. Three hours later, Ilsa Hermann and her husband arrived at the station asking for Liesel. They drove her to their home, a line separating the bombed section from the homes left standing. At the Hermanns’ house, Liesel ate sparingly and muttered to herself well into the night, and she refused to wash herself. Even on the day of the funerals, Liesel did not wash herself and only put on a pretty dress over the grime. Later that day, she walked fully clothed into the Amper River to say her goodbyes. The war continued, and the memory of her books drowned out her sorrow. It would take years for her to really recover.
Alex Steiner eventually returned home, but the news of his family’s death undid him. Alex learned that Liesel was still alive and visited her at the Hermanns’ home. She told Mr. Steiner that she had kissed his son Rudy once, and although it embarrassed her, she thought that it might make him feel better. Alex Steiner resumed his work at his tailor shop once the war was over and Hitler was dead. Liesel spent time with Mr. Steiner, and they even walked all the way to Dachau only to be turned away by the Americans. In October 1945, a man (Max) walked into the tailor shop and asked Alex for Liesel. When she came out, she hugged the man, and the two cried as they fell to the floor.
Death has seen so much in his time, and a handful of these stories have distracted him during his work. The Book Thief is one such story. When Death came for Liesel, he put her down and the two of them walked along Anzac Avenue. He handed her the book. Death wanted to tell her about beauty and brutality, but what could he tell her that she did not already know? All he could say to...
(The entire section is 465 words.)