Key Plot Points

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Death Introduces Himself As The Narrator (Prologue): The narrator, Death, introduces himself as an amiable entity. He reminds us that everyone dies, and tells us that we should not fear it. He admits that dying is a difficult process, and he tells readers that he copes with it by envisioning each death as a series of colors. He introduces us to Liesel Meminger, whom he calls “the book thief,” and describes each of the three instances in which he has encountered her. 

Liesel Arrives to Himmel Street and Meets the Hubermanns (Part One, Chapters 1–8): Part One begins in January 1939, when Death witnesses “a spectacularly tragic moment”: Liesel’s six-year-old brother, Werner, dies on a train and Liesel and her mother must bury him by the side of the railway line. During the funeral, Liesel steals her first book, The Grave Digger’s Handbook. With a mother who can no longer care for her, Liesel takes the train to Molching where she meets the Hubermanns, her new foster parents. Her foster mother, Rosa, frequently denigrates her and calls her a “saumensch,” or filthy pig; her foster father, Hans, whom she soon calls Papa, is much more nurturing and gentle. While living on Himmel Street, Liesel gets acquainted with her neighbors, including Rudy Steiner, a thin blonde boy who tries to kiss Liesel. Rudy admires American Olympian Jesse Owens and once tried to imitate Owens by covering himself in charcoal. By September 1939, the war begins. While most demonstrate support for Hitler, Hans does not and questions whether it would be wise to join the Nazi Party for the family’s sake. One night, Hans discovers The Grave Digger’s Handbook in Liesel’s room. Liesel expresses that she would like to learn how to read, and Hans gives her midnight reading lessons for several months. 

Liesel Steals her Second Book (Part Two, Chapters 9–16): Several months after the start of the war, Liesel has learned how to read. She finishes The Grave Digger’s Handbook and receives two more books for Christmas, which she discovers Hans acquired by trading his cigarettes. Money is tight; Rosa loses her jobs cleaning for some families in town and Hans continues to trade his cigarettes for food. On April 20, 1940, Hitler’s birthday, Liesel attends a Nazi assembly, where she falls sick. She stumbles upon a book burning and notices that there are some books that have been untouched by the fire. She grabs The Shoulder Shrug from the pile and hides it under her Hitler Youth uniform, where it burns against her skin. 

Liesel Discovers a Beautiful Library (Part Three, Chapters 17–24): On the way home from the book burning, The Shoulder Shrug burns Liesel’s skin and she must pull it out from under her uniform. She reveals to Hans that she stole it but he does not get angry. Instead, he tells her he won’t reveal her secret if she doesn’t reveal any of his, and he offers to teach her how to read the new book. Later, Hans goes to the Nazi recruitment office to enroll for the military so as not to arouse suspicion and receives a copy of Hitler’s book Mein Kampf. Liesel is paranoid that someone will learn that she stole another book. When Rosa tells Liesel to deliver laundry to the mayor’s home, she considers it a punishment. However, Liesel’s paranoia vanishes when she comes upon “the most beautiful thing she has ever seen.” Frau Hermann, the mayor’s wife, brings her into her library; Liesel admires the room and all of the books. Over the course of the summer, Liesel reads The Shoulder Shrug and continues her visits to the mayor’s library. Liesel and Rudy resort to stealing food at an apple orchard when food rations run low. Meanwhile, a Jewish man, Max Vandenburg, sits on his suitcase in a dark room in Walter Kugler’s home in the city of Stuttgart. Walter can no longer safely keep Max, and both must flee. Walter brings Max an identity card, a package with shaving tools, and a train ticket. Max, “the struggler,” arrives to Himmel Street, resolved but terrified to ask the Hubermanns for help. 

Max Arrives at the Hubermanns’ Home (Part Four, Chapters 25–32): Max reminds Hans of Max’s father, Erik Vandenburg, his German Jewish friend whom he met while they were fighting during WWI. Erik taught Hans how to play the accordion and encouraged him to take a writing job during the war, sparing Hans’s life from a battle in which all of the soldiers died, including Erik. To pay homage to his friend, Hans took Erik’s accordion and vowed to do anything for his family. After WWI, Hans worked as a painter. However, he was losing business in the years ramping up to WWII because of his Jewish sympathies. He went to the Nazi recruitment office to enroll in the party before witnessing some men throwing bricks into a Jewish shop. He returned to the office, rescinded his membership, and was placed on the waiting list. Readers learn more about Max as well: he grew up in Stuttgart and loved to fist fight, especially with his friend Walter Kugler. On Kristallnacht, November 9, 1939, Nazi soldiers looted Jewish businesses and homes, killing many in the process. Walter, dressed as a Nazi, helped Max escape and let him stay in hiding for two years. Now Max has arrived at the Hubermanns’. Rosa feeds Max pea soup and he falls asleep in Liesel’s room. Hans asks Liesel to keep Max’s presence a secret. The Hubermanns move Max to the basement, where he has nightmares. Liesel and Max bond over their shared trauma, and Max writes a story for her by covering the pages of Mein Kampf in white paint. His book is entitled The Standover Man and describes all the people he has encountered throughout his life, including Liesel who becomes his friend. 

Germany Invades Russia and Molching Prepares for War (Part Five, Chapters 33–40): Death foreshadows Rudy’s death by bombing and how Liesel will kiss his lips. Death then returns to the present, January 1941, as Germany invades the Soviet Union. The mayor warns the town to prepare for challenging times. Liesel gives Max a haircut, and she describes the weather outside for him. Max fantasizes about boxing Hitler and writes a new book on the white pages of Mein Kampf. When Liesel visits the mayor’s wife, Frau Hermann, she tells Liesel to keep her copy of The Whistler and gives her a letter to deliver to Rosa telling her that they will no longer need cleaning services. Liesel, feeling betrayed and hopeless, screams at Frau Hermann and tells her that she should be ashamed for living in a beautiful home while others suffer. Liesel spitefully brings up Frau Hermann’s dead son and throws the copy of The Whistler back at Frau Hermann. Meanwhile, Rudy attends Hitler Youth meetings where the leader, Franz Deutscher, tortures him. Rudy and Liesel continue stealing apples. Rudy and Liesel follow Viktor Chemmel, the leader of the thieves, and are disappointed when the apples they steal are sparse and rotten. Rudy gets in a fight with Viktor, and Liesel and Rudy start to leave. Rudy spits at Viktor, and Viktor warns Rudy that he’ll pay for his actions. Rudy and Liesel later feel that they need to steal something to feel better. Liesel realizes she wants to steal from the mayor and his wife, and that she despises them. Rudy helps Liesel sneak into the mayor’s library, where Liesel steals the same copy of The Whistler that Frau Hermann had tried to give her. Later, Rudy and Liesel run into Viktor Chemmel, who catches Liesel with The Whistler and throws it into the Amper River. Rudy saves the book and asks to kiss Liesel, but he doesn’t out of fear. 

Max Falls Ill and Liesel Tries to Make Him Feel Better (Part Six, Chapters 41–48): Death bookends this portion of the novel with diary entries, in which he describes the many souls he has carried away throughout 1942 and the colors he sees, like the sky which is “the color of Jews.” Meanwhile, Max falls ill after a snowfall during which Liesel took snow down to Max and created a snowman for him. Rosa at first blames it on Liesel and the snow, but Hans corrects her and blames Max’s illness on Adolf Hitler, saying it truly started there. Max sleeps for three days, and during this time, Death visited Max to take his life but found that Max fought back. Liesel tries to make Max feel better by reading The Whistler and bringing home gifts like pinecones, a crushed soccer ball, a ribbon, and a description of a cloud. Liesel and Rudy steal another book, The Dream Carrier, from Frau Hermann’s library. Liesel tries reading it to Max in hopes that he might wake up. He doesn’t get better, and the Hubermanns discuss what to do with Max’s body should he die. Eventually, Max regains consciousness, and Liesel runs home from school to see him and read to him. The Nazis make their way to Molching and scour each home to determine which are deep enough to serve as air raid shelters. The Hubermanns quickly hide Max under the basement steps. The Nazi soldiers measure the basement, and Max goes undetected. 

The First of the Air Raids on Molching (Part Seven, Chapters 49–56): In preparation for war in Molching, Hans paints the town’s windows black. During the Hitler Youth Games, Rudy tries to win four gold medals like his idol, Jesse Owens. However, he falls short when he false-starts his fourth race. Liesel finishes The Dream Carrier and steals two other books from Frau Hermann’s library: A Song in the Dark and The Duden Dictionary and Thesaurus. Inside the dictionary, she finds a letter written by Frau Hermann that says that she knows Liesel is stealing her books and that she should come visit her. Liesel tries to knock on the door of the mayor’s house but fails, runs away, and feels guilty for not being able to approach Frau Hermann. In September of 1942, Molching experiences air raids and the Hubermanns hide in a neighbor’s home. Liesel is unhappy that Max must stay in the Hubermanns’ basement alone. In order to soothe the fearful children during the air raid, Liesel reads to them. After the second air raid, Max comes up with his idea for his second book, The Word Shaker. A neighbor, Frau Holtzapfel, is impressed by Liesel and asks her to read to her each afternoon. Liesel is forced to comply when Frau Holtzapfel offers her coffee ration and to stop spitting on their door, which Rosa accepts. Following the air raids, Nazi trucks drive into Molching on their way to the concentration camp in Dachau. The Nazi soldiers march the Jewish prisoners through the streets in order to instill fear. When one of the older men cannot keep up, Hans offers the man a piece of bread. The Nazi soldiers intervene, whipping the old man and then Hans. Hans, the “dirty Jew lover,” is ostracized from the Molching community. Max, fearful for his safety after this incident, leaves the Hubermanns’ home and tells Liesel he has left something for her to have when she’s ready. Nazi soldiers arrive, and Liesel worries that they have come to take Hans away. She discovers that they are searching for Rudy instead. 

Max Leaves the Hubermanns and Leaves Liesel a Gift (Part Eight, Chapters 57–64): The Nazi soldiers want to recruit the athletic and intelligent Rudy, but Rudy’s father refuses and volunteers in place of his son. Death implies that if Rudy had left with the Nazi soldiers, he perhaps would have lived. Rudy’s father and Hans, who has been drafted into the Air Raid Special Unit in Essen (and which he calls the “Dead Body Collector Unit”), leave for their posts. Hans tells Liesel to care for Rosa, and Rosa holds Hans’s accordion all night. The air raids continue to hit Molching, and the Nazi soldiers continue to march starving Jews through the streets. Liesel and Rudy ride their bikes to drop pieces of bread before the parade. Liesel continues to read to the children during air raids as well as during her afternoon sessions with Frau Holtzapfel. Rosa gives Liesel the gift that Max left behind for her: a novel he had written called The Word Shaker. The novel, which is made up of short stories and illustrations, talks about the power of words, how the Führer uses words to control others, and how the word shaker, a young girl, plants a tree from her tears. In the final chapter, Liesel and Rudy sneak into Rudy’s father’s shop during Christmastime. Rudy tries on a suit and the two almost kiss. 

Hans Barely Evades Death in Essen (Part Nine, Chapters 65–72): Liesel steals another book, The Last Human Stranger, from Frau Hermann’s library, where she finds that Frau Hermann has left out a plate of cookies. As Liesel sneaks out of the library, she comes across Frau Hermann, who tells her that she used to read to her son in the library. A few days later, Liesel visits Frau Holtzapfel for their afternoon reading sessions and meets Michael, Frau Holtzapfel’s son. He is bandaged and bloody, having just barely survived battle. His brother has died and in order to comfort the grieving Frau Holtzapfel, Liesel reads to her. Meanwhile, Hans evades death when his truck veers out of control. He breaks a leg while another man who traded places with him only a few minutes prior dies. Hans is transferred to Munich, where he will work in an office. Rudy is upset at this news, since he hasn’t heard anything yet about his father. During an air raid, Liesel and Rudy come across a downed plane. They hand the dying pilot a teddy bear, and Death carries the pilot’s soul away. Hans returns home a few months later before his transfer, and Liesel is relieved to see him again. 

The Bombing of Molching (Part Ten, Chapters 73–80): Nazi soldiers continue to march Jewish prisoners down Himmel Street. Liesel spots Max, who had been captured on his way to Stuttgart, and runs out to him. The Nazi soldiers intervene and remove her from the parade. She does not relent and finds Max again, who kisses her on her hand. This time the Nazis whip both Liesel and Max. Rudy tries to save Liesel and receives the whip as well. The war is ending, and Death continues carrying souls away. He collects the souls of hundreds of Jews, as well as the soul of Michael Holzapfel, who hanged himself in the local laundromat. Liesel returns for the final time to Frau Hermann’s library. So enraged by the destruction of war, she destroys a book. Liesel writes an apology, and Frau Hermann arrives to Liesel’s home where she gives her a blank book and encourages her to write her own story. One night, bombs descend on Himmel Street. Everyone is fast asleep, and all of Liesel’s family and friends—including Rudy, Rosa, and Hans—die. Liesel survives because she was in the basement writing and reading over her life’s story, which she entitles The Book Thief. After the bombing, the police find the bodies amid the rubble. Liesel finds the bodies of Rosa and Hans, and kisses Rudy’s corpse on the lips. She retrieves Hans’s accordion and leaves her book in a heap of trash. Death carries away the souls of the dead but also saves Liesel’s book. 

Liesel Dies Many Years Later (Epilogue): Immediately following the bombing, Frau Hermann and her husband care for Liesel, who is haunted by the bombing and loss of her family. She refuses to wash herself and walks into the Amper River fully-clothed to commemorate Rudy, who saved her book years ago. Alex Steiner, Rudy’s father, returns home and he and Liesel reconnect. She admits to having kissed Rudy, and Alex returns to work at the clothing shop. In 1945, Max returns to Molching where he and Liesel have an emotional reunion. Death explains that Liesel went on to live a long life, having died “only yesterday” in a suburb of Sydney, Australia, and is survived by her children and grandchildren. During the last moments of her life, she remembered all of those she had loved, including Rudy, Rosa, and Hans. When Death comes to take Liesel’s soul away, he speaks to her and shows her The Book Thief, her book he collected following the bombing of Molching. Liesel asks Death if he understood the book, and he replies that he is “haunted by humans.” 

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