The Book Thief Summary

Death narrates this novel about Liesel Meminger, a nine-year-old girl living in Molching, Germany. Her father is taken away under suspicion of being a communist, and her brother dies on a train at the beginning of the novel. This is when Death first takes notice of her. He calls her “the book thief” because she steals a copy of The Gravedigger’s Handbook at her brother’s funeral.

  • Liesel goes to live with Hans and Rosa Hubermann, who become her foster parents. Hans, a house painter, teaches her to read with The Gravedigger’s Handbook and a book she steals from a Nazi book-burning rally. Liesel practices writing on the basement walls, using Hans’s paint to form the letters.
  • Liesel befriends Rudy Steiner, a young German boy obsessed with Jesse Owens, the Black American track star who won four medals at the 1936 Olympics. Together, the two friends stand up to local bullies and join the Hitler Youth. Liesel often breaks into the mayor’s library to steal his books. Eventually, his wife lets her in and allows her to read whatever she likes.
  • Meanwhile, Hans and Rosa hide Max Vandenburg, a young Jewish man whose father served in the war with Hans. He lives there for three years, during which time he and Liesel grow close. Max is later captured and taken to Dachau. After the war, Max and Liesel reunite and, presumably, get married.

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The Book Thief opens in a 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 soon becomes friends with a boy down the street named Rudy Steiner. He is a charismatic, fun character who is obsessed with Jesse Owens, the Black American track star who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics. In one infamous event, Rudy covered himself with charcoal and raced around the city’s track, envisioning days of glory on the field. Rudy and Liesel join local thief clans to steal fruit in the endless quest to satisfy their constant state of hunger. Together, they stand up to local bullies. Liesel at one point pummels Tommy Muhler, the bully down the street, winning Rudy’s undying respect and devotion. Rudy quickly becomes smitten with Liesel and finds opportune moments to ask her for a kiss. Both children end up joining Hitler’s Youth, an almost mandatory youth organization aimed at helping children grow up to serve Nazi Germany.

One of Rosa’s clients is the mayor’s wife. While delivering clothing to her house, Liesel notices a back door that leads to an extensive library. Later, she breaks into the library and steals a book. After reading it, she returns it, and takes another. Eventually, the mayor’s wife realizes what is happening and simply lets Liesel in to read. An unusual friendship is forged, and Liesel is exposed to many books as a result.

Another key character in the story is Max Vandenburg, a young Jewish man in his early twenties. His family is herded onto a train going to the concentration camps. As soon as it becomes clear where he is headed, Max finds a propitious moment to jump from the train car. He makes it to the house of a friend, who hides him away for as long as he can, but it is not safe. Max’s father had been a war-buddy of Hans’s and had taught Hans the accordion. So Max takes the long and precarious journey to Molching; he carries with him a key to the Hubermanns’ house, taped inside the cover of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The Hubermanns hide Max for a couple of years in their basement, but after Hans is caught giving bread to a starving Jew—one in a long line of Jews walking toward the nearby concentration camp at Dachau—it becomes unsafe for Max to stay there any longer. He leaves and ends up at Dachau himself, reappearing at the end of the story. Liesel and Max develop a strong connection, based on their mutual tendency to have nightmares and on their love of books. Max paints pages from his copy of Mein Kampf white and then writes a new book for Liesel on the whitened pages. He calls the book The Word Shaker, and in it, he recounts much of his journey, his thoughts on war, and his affection for Liesel.

As the war progresses, bomb raids become more common, and the neighborhood takes shelter in houses marked as bomb shelters. As they wait for the raids to be over, Liesel reads to those around her to calm them and pass the time. Liesel also begins to write her own story. While she is doing this, in her basement late one night, her town is bombed and everyone she knows is killed: Hans, Rosa, and Rudy, along with many others in the neighborhood. She survives only because she is in the basement. The book closes later, with Liesel and Max meeting again in a very happy reunion. It is implied that they marry and have a long and happy life together.

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