Markus Zusak

The Book Thief

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The Book Thief Summary

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Set in Germany during World War Two, the novel begins with its narrator, Death, introducing himself, and saying that the first time he saw the book thief was on a train. After a number of musings by this personification of death, we meet the story’s main character, Liesel Meminger, who is on a train to Munich with her mother and her brother, Werner. Werner dies suddenly—the reason why Death was on the train—and Liesel and her mother leave the train to bury the body. This is when Liesel steals her first book, from one of the gravediggers.

Liesel and her mother continue on to Molching, and make plans for Liesel to be raised by her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Liesel’s father has abandoned them previously, and her mother is Communist, an outlawed political stance. Liesel doesn’t like her foster parents at first, but after Hans teaches her how to roll cigarettes, her opinion changes.

As she adjusts to life in her new home, Liesel suffers nightmares about her brother. Liesel meets the neighbor boy, Rudy Steiner, a fan of the American track-and-field star Jesse Owens. Hans learns that Liesel doesn’t know how to read, so he sets out to teach her. They start with the alphabet, and then make their way through the book Liesel stole from the gravedigger.

This learning is set against the backdrop of the increasingly dangerous political circumstances in Germany. The war is raging; materials and food are becoming ever more scarce. The town celebrates Hitler’s birthday with a book burning, and while there, Liesel steals another book.

Liesel helps Rosa by delivering laundry, which Rosa has begun washing in order to help make ends meet. One day, while she’s delivering laundry to the mayor’s wife, Ilsa Hermann, Liesel is invited into the house. In the study, Liesel is enamored of the walls of books that line the room. She’s allowed to stay in the study and read.

Elsewhere, in Stuttgart, the German Jew Max Vandenburg hides in a dark closet with no light, food, or water. A friend brings him falsified identity papers and a map, which is hidden in a copy of Mein Kampf. Max takes a train to the Hubermanns’ house. Since Max’s father had served with Hans in the first World War, the Hubermanns have agreed to hide Max in their basement. Max and Liesel become friends, and he paints over the pages of Mein Kampf and uses it to write a new story for her.

Frau Hermann tells Liesel that the Hermanns can no longer afford to send out the laundry, a notion that angers Liesel given the Hermanns’ apparent wealth. Liesel, with some help from Rudy, begins sneaking in and stealing books from the Hermanns’ study. At Christmastime, Liesel builds Max a snowman in the basement. Max falls sick, though, and enters into a coma from which it takes him several months to awaken.

War continues. The Nazis inspect the Hermanns’ basement, checking to see if it’s deep enough for a bomb shelter. Fortunately, they do not see Max. Liesel has continued to steal books from Frau Hermann, who one day leaves a note with a dictionary and a thesaurus, revealing that she’s known about Liesel’s thievery. Rudy wins three races at a Hitler Youth carnival. As Allied bombings near, the family takes shelter in a neighbors’ basement, where Liesel reads to everyone to pass the time. Max must stay in the Hermanns’ basement by himself.

The Nazi soldiers begin walking their Jewish prisoners through the streets on their way to the concentration camp at Dachau. An elderly male prisoner struggles, so Hans gives him a piece of bread. The soldiers whip both Hans and the prisoner. Hans assumes he’s drawn too much attention to himself now, and that the Nazis will come inspect his home, making it unsafe for Max. Max leaves the basement, though the Nazis never come to take Hans away. They do, however, visit Rudy, and because they were impressed with his athleticism, they want to send him to a school for future Nazi leaders. Rudy’s father, Alex, won’t let him go, however, and the soldiers leave.

A few days later, Alex and Hans are drafted. They leave for the war. During another Jewish prisoner march, Rudy and Liesel scatter bread in the streets. Rosa gives Liesel a book that Max made for Liesel. It’s called The Word Shaker, and it’s about the two kids’ friendship. Inside, Max promises that they’ll be reunited some day.

The Nazis send Hans to Essen, where he is assigned to a unit that cleans up after air raids. One day, his work bus is involved in an accident and he breaks his leg. Later, during the aftermath of an air raid, Liesel and Rudy come upon a downed Allied fighter pilot. The pair arrive just in time to see him die, and Death remarks that it’s the second time he’s seen Liesel.

During another prisoner march, Liesel sees Max among the captured being paraded through the streets. Liesel reveals to Rudy that she’d been involved in hiding Max.

Frau Hermann gives Liesel a blank notebook, telling her that now she can write her own story. While Liesel is working on her book in the basement one night, her neighbor’s home is bombed. The neighbors are killed, along with Hans, Rosa, and Rudy. Liesel is there when Rudy’s body is recovered, and she gives him a kiss goodbye. The workers remove her, but she leaves behind her story, which she’s called “The Book Thief.” Death has been observing, and he saves the book.

Liesel leaves to live with the Hermanns. After the end of the war and the liberation of the concentration camps, Max returns to the town and seeks out Liesel. Liesel grows up and moves to Australia, where she dies after a long life. As Death comes to take her soul, he shows Liesel her book that he’d rescued.

The most important theme of the novel concerns the power of words. Liesel’s life takes a dramatic turn as she learns to read, and then to write, and then learns to write her own story. Learning creates a deep bond between her and Max. Words, the novel says, can change to world.

No stronger evidence is needed of that fact than the use of the book Mein Kampf. The book physically saves Max, as it hides the map that leads him to the basement. Once its pages have been painted over, it serves also, in a way, to save Liesel. In the real world, Mein Kampf greatly contributed to Nazism and the Holocaust, again proving the power—even if used to devastating effect—of words.

As the narrator, Death plays an important role in the storytelling, as well as thematically in the novel. Death is all around, in several senses of the words. He’s watching, ready to ferry souls into the afterlife, and death as an event is everywhere as the war comes closer to the characters.

Even in the midst of so much horror, love is never absent. Several of the characters develop deep and lasting affection for each other, proof that even in the worst of circumstances, the human capacity for good can win out.