Prologue and Part 1 Summary

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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 1, 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 Werner 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 Liesel 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 yellow stars” (homes that belonged to Jewish families that were painted with the Star of David). But these images do not stop Rudy from trying to win over Liesel; he tries to get a kiss from her as a prize for beating her in a foot race. Liesel refuses.

Eventually, Papa sees that Liesel has a book but that she cannot read. He begins to give her lessons, but he must cover the windows so no one sees him teaching the girl. Hans does not agree with the Nazi regime, and he is upset when the war begins in September 1939. Liesel fights her own war at school when it is revealed that she cannot read. A classmate, Ludwig Schmeikl, pokes fun at her, and she beats him up in the schoolyard.

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Part 2 Summary