The Book Thief (2014) Description :
The Book Thief is a novel by Australian author Markus Zusak. Narrated by Death, the book is set in Nazi Germany, a place and time when the narrator notes he was extremely busy. It describes a young girl’s relationship with her foster parents, the other residents of their neighborhood, and a Jewish fist-fighter who hides in her home during the escalation of World War II. Published in 2006, it has won numerous awards and has been listed on the The New York Times Best Seller list for over 230 weeks.
The Book Thief (2014) Plot Summary :
Death describes its first encounter with a nine-year-old girl named Liesel Meminger as she attends the funeral of her brother in the late 1930s. The brother, Werner, died on a train as their mother was taking them to Molching, Germany, where they were to be left with a foster family in order to distance them from their parents’ past communist sympathies. The death of the boy forces Liesel and her mother to make a stopover for a burial. It is just after the funeral that Liesel steals her first book, after it is dropped in the snow by a gravedigger’s apprentice. Despite being under-educated for her age and unable to read the book, she keeps it as a final memento of her brother.
Death continues to narrate, but as a second-hand account of Liesel’s own writing from years later. Upon arriving at the home of her foster parents, housepainter Hans Hubermann and his wife Rosa, Liesel finds it difficult to adjust. She is haunted by nightmares about her mother and dead brother. She eventually develops a bond with Hans, who comes to her every night, without fail, and stays with her until she is able to go to sleep again. This bond enables her to find normalcy and peace in her new home. Hans even, upon noticing The Grave Digger’s Handbook tucked under Liesel’s mattress, decides to take the opportunity afforded by the sleepless hours he spends with Liesel each night to teach her how to read and write.
Rosa Hubermann, whose personality is much coarser than Hans’, takes Liesel under her wing in her own way by having her help with her job of washing and delivering laundry for other households. Shortly after the start of World War II, Rosa makes it Liesel’s job to pick up and deliver the laundry in the hopes that penny-pinched customers will feel guilty about telling a child that they cannot afford to enlist her mother’s services any longer.
For Christmas, Liesel is given two used books, paid for in cigarettes by Hans. The Hubermanns have a son and a daughter of their own, both of whom are grown and live elsewhere, but visit at Christmastime. Their son, Hans Jr., is a staunch Hitlerite who has an intense argument with his father about his failure to obtain membership in the Nazi party (due to a much earlier incident in which the latter painted over anti-Semitic graffiti on a Jewish shopkeeper’s door). Hans Jr. leaves angrily, but not before suggesting that Liesel should be reading Mein Kampf rather than the sort of books that the Hubermanns have given her.
Meanwhile, Liesel befriends a neighborhood boy of the same age by the name of Rudy Steiner, who often asks Liesel for kisses only to be rejected each time. The pair eventually takes to stealing as an occasional pastime, usually fuelled by Rudy’s constant hunger. At a rally on Hitler’s birthday, 20 April 1940, during a public book burning, Liesel steals a second book. The only witness is the mayor’s wife, who is also a customer of Rosa Hubermann’s laundry business.
When Hans Hubermann is contacted by Max Vandenburg, the son of a Jew who saved his life in the First World War, he takes his son’s advice and buys a copy of Mein Kampf. In it he hides the train tickets and forged documentation necessary to get Max to the Hubermann residence, arranging for him to arrive under cover of night. Max takes up residence in the Hubermanns’ basement, hidden underneath the steps by hanged sheets and stacked paint cans.
Having seen Liesel take the book at the rally, the mayor’s wife, Ilsa Hermann, eventually invites Liesel to read from the books in her extensive library. Doing so with each pick-up and delivery, Liesel eventually learns of Ilsa’s crippling self-pity over the death of her only son during the First World War. Liesel quickly befriends Max. For having kept watch over the fugitive Jew for many nights as he recovered from his wearisome journey to find the Hubermanns, Max writes a short illustrated story called “The Standover Man” for Liesel and gives it to her as a birthday gift. The title refers to the people in one’s life who will stay comfortingly at one’s bedside in times of need, just as Liesel did for Max and as Hans had done for Liesel.
To not appear hypocritical after urging townspeople to be as economical as possible in order to support the war effort, the mayor and his wife discontinue their use of Rosa Hubermann’s laundering services. As Ilsa Hermann gives Liesel a letter explaining that they will be doing their own washing from then on, she tells her that she is still free to read from her library at any time and gives her a book to take home with her. Knowing that this will exacerbate her family’s financial woes, Liesel reacts angrily, attacking Ilsa’s state of self-pity for her son’s death, informing her “it’s pathetic that you sit here shivering in your own house to suffer for it” as she throws the offered book back to the woman’s feet.
Liesel returns to the mayor’s home at a later date with Rudy and steals the book by climbing in through the window. A short time later, the pair encounter a group of older boys who have it out for Rudy and they throw Liesel’s stolen book into a river. Always seeking ways to earn a kiss, Rudy retrieves the book from the ice cold water.
Upon winter’s arrival in 1942, Max falls gravely ill. Even more so than upon his first arrival at their home, Liesel keeps a relentless vigil over Max as he sleeps without waking for days stretching into weeks. Periodically she leaves small presents by his side – found trinkets, usually, such as ribbons, buttons and the like –and reads to him daily.
Max eventually wakes from his sickness and has no sooner gotten back to normal than the party sends a man without warning to check basements for suitability as bomb shelters. Max is miraculously able to hide in the basement right under the nose of the party man, who concludes that their basement is too shallow to serve as an adequate shelter.
The Hubermanns’ fortunes improve with the growing danger of air raids as Hans is employed to paint over windows so that bombers cannot see the lights on inside the homes. In the meantime, Liesel has continued to steal books from the Hermanns’ library. One day, they find that a book, a dictionary in fact, has been placed on the sill. Liesel steals it and as they are leaving, looks back and sees Ilsa Hermann as she stands behind the window and raises a hand to wave. Inside the dictionary, Liesel and Rudy discover a letter addressed to Liesel, informing her that the mayor’s wife has known all along that they have been stealing books and that she only hopes that Liesel will one day choose to knock on the front door rather than sneak through the window.
When the air raid sirens begin sounding with regularity, Liesel helps maintain calm in the designated shelter by reading to the others from one of her books. The Hubermanns’ next-door neighbour, with whom Rosa has been feuding for years, proposes that Liesel read to her on a regular basis in exchange for her coffee ration; the deal is struck.
Two weeks later, a group of Jews is marched through Molching toward Dachau. As they are paraded through the town in front of a crowd of onlookers, Hans Hubermann takes pity on an enfeebled old Jewish man and steps forward to hand him a piece of bread. A soldier takes notice and whips both Hans and the elderly Jew.
Regretting his actions for the attention they will surely draw to them from the Nazis, Hans has Max leave for his own safety shortly after the incident. Before leaving, Max tells Liesel that he has left a gift for her that she will only receive when she is ready. With each day that passes without a visit from the Gestapo, however, Hans begins to regret sending Max away, believing he may have needlessly sent him away from a danger that wasn’t coming. When two “coat men” finally approach the Hubermanns’ house, Hans is relieved to think that he didn’t send him away for nothing. In fact, they have come to the wrong house, and proceed down the street to the Steiner residence. They are interested in taking Rudy to a special Nazi-run school based on his academic and athletic performance. His parents decline. The punishment that Hans Hubermann has been waiting for finally comes when he is conscripted for military service. Alex Steiner, Rudy’s father, is also drafted for having refused to send Rudy to the special school. They leave by train and that night Liesel wakes to discover Rosa Hubermann crying herself to sleep in the living room with Hans’ accordion clutched to her chest, a nightly occurrence from then on.
They were upset with the fact that their parents were taken away when another group of Jews is shepherded through Molching. Liesel and Rudy decide to run ahead of the pack, leave pieces of bread lying along the path, and then hide in some nearby trees. Liesel compromises her hiding spot while trying to tell if Max is among the group, and she is spotted after a soldier notices prisoners bending down to pick up pieces of bread. The children are chased through the woods but manage to get away.
Rosa, deciding that Liesel is ready for Max’s parting gift, reveals a bundle of papers, not unlike that on which “The Standover Man” was written, hidden within her mattress. During his stay with the Hubermanns, Max had used the scraps of paper as a sort of journal and sketchbook to pass the time. The journal is titled “The Word Shaker”, after its most significant entry, a short illustrated fable that serves as an allegory for Nazi Germany and the power of words.
Ignoring Ilsa Hermann’s suggestion to use the front door, Liesel returns with Rudy to the mayor’s home to steal again. This time she finds that a plate of staling cookies has been left on the desk, but is intercepted by Ilsa before she can make her escape. Liesel takes comfort in the realization that the age of the cookies indicate that the library belongs to Ilsa (had her husband used the room, he would surely not have left cookies to go stale on the desk) and not the mayor. She awkwardly reconciles with Ilsa Hermann and quickly takes her leave.
In early 1943, Liesel is greeted by a strange face when she makes her scheduled visit to read to her neighbour, Frau Holtzapfel. It is Holtzapfel’s son, returned from Stalingrad where he lost three fingers and a brother. After hearing the news of her second son’s death, Frau Holtzapfel appears distant and depressed every time Liesel comes to read to her.
When a truck that Hans is riding in the back of loses control and rolls over, he suffers from a broken leg and is sent back from the Eastern Front. Before he arrives, however, Molching receives another air raid warning. All but Frau Holtzapfel, who is still under the hold of crippling depression, make their way to the bomb shelter. Her son, Liesel, and Rosa all try to convince her to proceed to the shelter, but to no avail. Before leaving for the shelter themselves, Liesel tells her that if she does not come, Liesel will stop reading to her and she will have lost her only friend. A short time after they arrive at the shelter, Frau Holtzapfel finally removes herself from her kitchen and joins them.
When the sirens signal that it is okay to leave the shelter, the townspeople’s attention is drawn to a bomber plane that has been downed on the banks of a nearby river. Rudy and Liesel are the first to arrive on the scene, where Rudy comforts the dying pilot. He places a teddy bear on the shoulder of the pilot, who thanks him with his dying breath.
Three months later, two more groups of Jews are marched through Molching and, like the last time, Liesel watches to see if Max is among them. She is unsure whether to hope that he is a part of the procession, in which case she at least knows that he is still alive, or that he is not, in which case he might still be free, or perhaps dead. Around the same time, Frau Holtzapfel’s only surviving son hangs himself one night from the rafters of a local laundry, devastating her further.
A month later, more Jews are paraded by and this time Max Vandenburg is among them. When Liesel runs in among the crowd of prisoners for a tearful reunion with her friend, they are finally pulled apart and each of them whipped by a soldier. Rudy runs to help Liesel and to get her off the street, but she breaks free and again runs toward the long line of Jews to find Max. Before she can do so, however, Rudy catches up to her and tackles her to the ground as Max is led away with the rest.
After keeping to herself for three days after the incident, Liesel finally tells Rudy everything about the Jew they’d been hiding in their basement after forcing him to promise that he would never tell anyone.
To cheer herself up, Liesel once more sneaks into the Hermann’s library, but instead becomes angry at what the power of words has done to Germany and tears up one of the books in frustration. Before leaving, she leaves an apologetic note of explanation for Ilsa Hermann, writing that she will no longer be returning there. Three days later, Ilsa arrives unexpectedly at Liesel’s home and gifts her with a small black book of lined pages for writing in, saying that she wrote well in the letter she’d left in the library.
Over many weeks, Liesel writes the story of her life since arriving on Himmel Street in the little black book while sitting in the basement where she had first learned to read with her foster father and had later read with Max. A few nights after she finishes her story with the line “I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right”, as she rereads the book, Himmel Street is bombed without warning.
Despite having earlier been dismissed as unsuitable for a bomb shelter, the Hubermanns’ shallow basement is the main factor that helps make Liesel the only survivor on the whole street of the bombing. She is liberated from the rubble by the rescue squad and is distraught by the scene of destruction all around her. She finds Frau Holtzapfel’s body first, and then Rudy’s, and after tearfully trying to revive his lifeless body, at last gives him the kiss he’d always asked her for.
Next she finds the bodies of Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Liesel retrieves Hans’ accordion for him and cries by their side until she is finally taken away by the emergency responders. Liesel’s little black book of reminiscences, titled “The Book Thief”, is picked up from the rubble and mistaken for trash. Death picks it up off the back of a garbage truck as he passes with the souls of the residents of Himmel Street in hand. Shortly after the bombing, Liesel is adopted by Ilsa Hermann and her husband, the mayor, and Alex Steiner returns from his military service and laments, “if only I’d let Rudy go to that school”. Rudy’s father reopens his tailoring business and Liesel passes the time by helping him in the store. After the war, Max is liberated from Dachau and returns to find Liesel at the store, where they share an emotional reunion.
Many years later, Death comes for Liesel in Sydney, and reveals to her that he has carried her little black book, “The Book Thief”, with him for all these years. Astonished, she asks, “Could you understand it?”, to which he simply notes, “I am haunted by humans.
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