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The Book Thief

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The Book Thief

Inspired by his parents’ stories of war-time Europe, The Book Thief (2005) is a historical fiction novel by Australian writer Markus Zusak. The novel is set in Nazi Germany between 1939 and 1945 and explores the lives of German citizens during World War II and the Holocaust.

In particular, The Book Thief is the story of Liesel, a girl who is just nine years old at the start of the story. Throughout the novel, she grows up to discover the power of language, love, and courage.

The Book Thief: Summary

The Book Thief is divided into ten parts with eighty chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue.

Prologue: A Mountain Range of Rubble

The narrator, Death, introduces himself and the story to come. He begins by saying that when he comes to take people away, he always notices the colors around him, of the sky and the landscape. This helps him to distract himself from seeing the distress of the "leftover humans" (Prologue) whose loved ones have died. He tells the reader that he has seen the book thief three times. The first time when he came to take away a little boy, he associates with the color white. The second, when he came to take away a young fighter pilot, he remembers the color black. The third and final time, he came to take away townspeople killed in a bombing, and he remembers seeing red. These are the colors of the Nazi flag.

After the final time, Death explains that he followed the book thief for a while, picking up a book she dropped.

Part One: The Grave Digger’s Handbook

Nine-year-old Liesel Meminger is on a train with her mother and little brother. Liesel’s little brother dies on the train and is buried at the next station. While digging, one of the gravediggers drops a book, The Grave Digger’s Handbook, and Liesel takes it with her.

She and her mother travel on to Molching, where Liesel’s mother leaves her with her new foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. It takes Liesel some time to adjust to her new home and her new parents. She has nightmares about her dead brother and struggles in school.

However, Hans and Liesel begin to form a special bond. He comforts her when she wakes up screaming and begins to teach her the alphabet after discovering she can barely read. The two begin reading The Grave Digger’s Handbook together.

At school, Liesel makes one friend, a boy named Rudy. After winning a race, Rudy wants Liesel to kiss him, but she refuses.

Part Two: The Shoulder Shrug

Liesel is adjusting to her new life, and her reading is improving. However, as the war progresses, life becomes more difficult in Molching. Rosa is a laundry lady, and many of her clients can no longer afford to send out their washing.

The town organizes a parade for Hitler’s birthday celebration, and every house must fly its German and Nazi flags. The Hubermanns, however, cannot find their flag, leading to a panic. The flag is found in time, but the arrival of the Hubermanns’ children causes another problem. Hans and his son, Hans Jr., argue because Hans Jr. feels that his father is not supportive enough of Hitler and Germany.

At the birthday celebration, Liesel watches the bonfire burn and begins to understand the connection between Hitler and the loss of her parents. She tells Hans that she hates Hitler, and he startles her by slapping her and telling her she can never say that.

The Book Thief, burning book, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Liesel steals her second book from a bonfire.

As the fire burns, Liesel saves a book, The Shoulder Shrug, and hides it under her shirt.

Part Three: Mein Kampf

Liesel realizes that the mayor’s wife saw her steal The Shoulder Shrug, and she begins to avoid his house when she goes on her laundry rounds. When she does finally face the mayor’s wife, the woman makes no mention of the book, and Liesel thinks maybe she was mistaken. However, on a subsequent visit, the mayor’s wife invites Liesel into their library.

Meanwhile, in another town, a Jewish man named Max is hiding in a storage room. He has been there for two years, awaiting an identity card so that he can escape. It finally receives it inside a copy of Mein Kampf, which he reads on the train so as not to arouse suspicion. His final destination is the Hubermanns’ house.

Part Four: The Standover Man

Here the story goes back to describe Hans’ time in World War I. Another soldier, a German Jew called Erik, taught Hans’ to play the accordion. The day Hans’ platoon went into battle, Erik volunteered Hans to write letters for the commander. While Hans was writing letters, his entire platoon was killed.

Hans believed that he owed Erik his life, and when the war ended, he returned Erik’s accordion to the man’s widow, telling her to contact him if she ever needed anything.

Max is Erik’s son, and the time has come for Hans to fulfill his debt. Max starts living in the Hubermanns’ basement. He and Liesel both suffer from nightmares, and they begin to bond over this. Winter begins, and Liesel celebrates her twelfth birthday. As a gift, Max paints over the pages of Mein Kampf and makes his own book called The Standover Man, which tells of all the people who have stood over Max in his life.

Part Five: The Whistler

As the war progresses, life gets more difficult for the residents of Molching. The mayor’s wife can no longer afford to pay for the washing, and Liesel refuses to accept the book she tries to give her.

Rudy attends Hitler Youth meetings but stops when he is punished after standing up for a deaf boy in their group.

Liesel sneaks into the mayor’s library and steals her next book, The Whistler.

Part Six: The Dream Carrier

Christmas arrives, and Liesel, Max, and the Hubermanns build a snowman in the basement. Afterward, however, Max gets sick, eventually falling into a coma. Death visits Max but doesn’t take him away.

The Book Thief, snowman, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Max cannot go outside, so Liesel brings the snow to him and they build a snowman in the basement.

While he is sick, Liesel reads to him, beginning with The Whistler and later stealing another from the mayor’s library, The Dream Catcher. The war continues, and Nazi soldiers arrive in Molching to inspect basements that might be used for bomb shelters. Luckily, Max is able to hide in time and avoid detection.

Part Severn: The Complete Duden Dictionary and Thesaurus

Molching continues to prepare for the inevitable bombings. Hans, who is a painter, is busy painting the town’s blinds to blackout the lights at night.

When air raids do begin, Liesel, Rosa, and Hans take refuge in a neighbor’s basement, but they have to leave Max behind. Luckily, all ends well this night, and Liesel passes subsequent air raids reading aloud to those assembled in the basement.

The Book Thief, Cellar Basement, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Liesel and her neighbors shelter from bombs in a basement.

One day, Nazi soldiers parade a group of Jewish prisoners through Molching. When Hans sees an older Jewish man struggling to keep up, he gives him a piece of bread. A soldier whips both Hans and the Jewish man for this transgression. The offer of bread also spoils Hans’ reputation in town, and Max must leave because Hans has drawn too much attention to himself.

Part Eight: The World Shaker

Hans and Rudy’s father are drafted into the German army and leave for battle. When another parade of Jewish prisoners comes through town, Liesel worries that she will see Max among them, but she and Rudy are chased away by a soldier.

Back home, Rosa gives Liesel another book that Max made for Liesel before he left. It is called The World Shaker.

Part Nine: The Last Human Stranger

Molching begins to feel the effects of the war more personally as men return wounded, or worse, do not return at all.

During his service, Hans suffers a broken leg, which allows him to return home, much to the relief of Rosa and Liesel.

Part Ten: The Book Thief

In another parade of Jewish prisoners, Liesel finally sees Max. She talks to him and walks alongside him until she is whipped and forced away by soldiers. Devastated, Liesel stays in bed for three days.

After this, Liesel has a breakdown in the mayor’s library and destroys a book. She apologizes to the mayor’s wife, who later brings her a blank book so that Liesel can write down her own story.

Liesel does this, and she is in the basement of her home writing when her street is bombed. Rosa, Hans, and Rudy are killed, along with most of Liesel’s neighbors.

Liesel gives Rudy’s corpse the kiss he always wanted, and she says goodbye to her foster parents. She leaves the book she’d been writing, The Book Thief, behind in the rubble. However, Death sees the little black book and takes it with him.

Epilogue: The Last Color

Death informs the reader that Liesel has died in Sydney, Australia, after living a long life. After the bombing, she was taken in by the mayor and his wife. One day, miraculously, Max returned looking for Liesel, and the two had a tearful reunion.

Death describes coming to collect Liesel’s soul and presenting her with the book, The Book Thief, that he had carried for so many years.

The Book Thief: Key Characters

There are many characters in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. These are some of the most important:

  • Death is the narrator of the story. He experiences a variety of complex emotions related to his unsavory job and often narrates with compassion and regret for what will happen to the characters.
  • Liesel Meminger is nine years old when the novel begins, and she matures physically, mentally, and emotionally over the course of the story. Initially frightened and distrustful of her new home and foster parents, Liesel develops complex, meaningful relationships with many people, including Hans, Max, and Rudy.
  • Rudy Steiner is Liesel’s best friend. He is strong and athletic and has strong feelings for Liesel, although they never become more than friends.
  • Max Vandenburg is a Jewish man who hides in the Hubermanns’ basement. Both Max and Liesel have been uprooted and lost family, which allows them to form a close bond.
  • Hans Hubermann is Liesel’s adoptive father. Although she initially distrusts him, Hans quickly wins Liesel over with his kind and gentle demeanor. Hans is quick to help anyone who needs it, even when it puts him in danger.
  • Rosa Hubermann is Hans’ wife and Liesel’s adoptive mother. Rosa is colder and more brusque than her husband, but her toughness disguises a more kind interior.

The Book Thief: Setting

The Book Thief is set in Molching, Germany, a fictional suburb of Munich, beginning in January 1939. The setting is key to the book’s plot because it is a historical fiction novel.

World War II began in 1939 and ended in 1945. This included the Holocaust, which took place between 1941 and 1945. Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939, causing the United Kingdom and France to declare war on Germany. Over the next years, Germany worked to seize control of continental Europe, forming what is known as the Axis alliance with countries including Italy and Japan. Japan, meanwhile, attempted to dominate Asia and the Pacific region. World War II is known as human history’s deadliest conflict, with an estimated 70-80 million deaths.

Most of the novel’s action takes place on or near Himmel Street, where the Hubermanns’ house is located. However, there are instances where the perspective shifts to go back in time to illustrate other struggles in the war.

Himmel translates to “heaven." What significance can you find in this name?

The Book Thief: Analysis of Symbols

Some important symbols in The Book Thief are colors, books, and the accordion.

Colors

Death always notices the color of the sky when he comes to take someone away. It is a welcomed distraction from his work and helps him to avoid seeing “the leftover humans” (Prologue) who mourn the dead. Colors become a symbol of Death’s personification, of his awareness of his work and his distaste for it.

Books

For Liesel, learning to read and stealing books becomes a form of resistance. Learning to read empowers Liesel and endows her with new self-confidence. Likewise, stealing books allows her to take control of an uncontrollable situation, for example, her brother’s death, the bonfire at Hitler’s birthday celebration, the loss of her family’s income, and the incomprehensibility of war in general.

The Accordion

Hans’ accordion is a reminder of the man who saved his life. For Hans, it symbolizes the fact that he is alive and reminds him of why and of his duty to Erik’s memory. When Hans is sent to war, the accordion becomes a symbol of Hans himself. Later, when Himmel Street is destroyed, the accordion is all Liesel has left of her home; it becomes a symbol of everything she has lost.

The Book Thief: Themes

Some key themes in The Book Thief are words and language, war and death, and love and courage.

Words and Language

The power of words and language is central to The Book Thief. Learning to read, stealing books, and later writing her own life story is what allows Liesel to feel in control of her life. Language also has the power to unite characters. Hans and Liesel bond as he teaches her to read. Max writes stories for Liesel based on their friendship. Liesel reads to calm her neighbors while sheltering from bombs.

Conversely, Hitler is also aware of the power of words and uses language to push his own agenda.

War and Death

The Book Thief is a historical novel set during World War II. Therefore, war and death are key themes. However, Markus Zusak makes things a little more complicated by making the novel’s narrator a personified version of death. Death becomes a real, tangible part of the story with his own voice, thoughts, and feelings, constantly reminding the reader of the characters’ mortality.

Love and Courage

The counterpoint to war and death is, of course, love and courage, and there is no shortage of love or heroic action on Himmel Street. The Hubermanns take in Liesel and Max, the latter at great personal risk. Rudy stands up for Liesel and the other kids in school. Hans gives bread to a Jewish man in full view of the whole town. Liesel reads aloud through bombings to calm her neighbors. These small acts craft a picture of the bravery necessary even in the actions of everyday life during times of crisis.

The Book Thief: Key Quotes

Death begins The Book Thief by introducing himself and his work:

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me." -Prologue

Death explains that he is different from what people expect and that he doesn’t necessarily enjoy his job. The voice is remarkably human, a character capable of a wide range of emotions and complex thoughts.

Once, words had rendered Liesel useless, but now, when she sat on the floor, with the mayor’s wife at her husband’s desk, she felt an innate sense of power. It happened every time she deciphered a new word or pieced together a sentence.

She was a girl.

In Nazi Germany.

How fitting that she was discovering the power of words.” -Chapter Twenty

The above quote illustrates the empowerment that Liesel feels when she reads. Liesel learned to read later in her childhood. Therefore, the importance of the skill is not lost on her. She sees the power of words at work in the world around her and understands that she can now wield some of that power herself.

It was the beginning of the greatest Christmas ever. Little food. No presents. But there was a snowman in their basement.” -Chapter Forty-Two

Every day, Liesel brings the basement-bound Max a weather report. On Christmas Eve, she brings him a handful of snow. Liesel proceeds to carry buckets of snow into the basement, and she, Max, and the Hubermanns build a snowman and have a snowball fight. It is a rare, light-hearted moment when all of them are filled with joy.

The Book Thief - Key takeaways

  • The Book Thief is a work of historical fiction written by Markus Zusak and published in 2005.
  • It tells the story of Liesel Meminger, who is nine years old when the novel begins, and her life in Nazi Germany.
  • Liesel befriends Max, a Jewish man, while he lives hidden in her foster parents’ basement.
  • Some key symbols in The Book Thief are colors, books, and an accordion.
  • Some key themes in The Book Thief are words and language, war and death, and love and courage.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Book Thief

The Book Thief employs themes such as words and language, war and death, and love and courage to reveal the human everyday experience of war.

In The Book Thief, stealing books is a symbol of resistance. 

The Book Thief is a work of historical fiction.

The setting is important to The Book Thief because it is a work of historical fiction. It explores the lives of fictional characters in the historical context of World War II and the Holocaust.

Markus Zusak is the author of The Book Thief.

Final The Book Thief Quiz

Question

Who wrote The Book Thief?

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Answer

Markus Zusak

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Question

Where does The Book Thief take place?

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Answer

In Molching, Germany, a fictional suburb of Munich.

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Question

What is the historical context for The Book Thief?

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Answer

World War II and the Holocaust

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Question

Which is NOT a key symbol in The Book Thief?

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Answer

Letters

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Question

Which is NOT a key theme in The Book Thief?

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Answer

Acceptance and understanding

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Question

How old is Liesel when The Book Thief begins?

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Answer

Nine years old

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Question

Who narrates The Book Thief?

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Answer

Death

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Question

Why does Hans agree to help Max?

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Answer

Because Max’s father saved Hans’ life

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Why does Liesel steal books?

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Answer

Stealing books is an act of rebellion.

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Why does Death enjoy noticing the color of the sky when he takes someone away?

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Answer

It is a welcomed distraction from his work.

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What does Liesel do when she and her neighbors hide during bombings?

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Answer

She reads to her neighbors.

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How many times does Death say he encounters the book thief?

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Answer

Three

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Question

What is the first book that Liesel steals?

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Answer

The Grave Digger’s Handbook

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On which street do the Hubermanns live?

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Answer

Himmel Street

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Question

What is the name of Liesel’s best friend?

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Answer

Rudy

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