For reasons unknown to us at the time, Liesel's mother is taking Liesel and her little brother Werner by train to live with foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. The Hubermanns live on Himmel Street in the town of Molching, Germany. Sadly, Werner dies on the train. Before Liesel arrives in Molching, she attends her brother's burial in a snowy graveyard. She steals The Grave Digger's Handbook from the cemetery after it falls from a young grave digger's coat. The kicker is, Liesel can't read.
After arriving on Himmel Street, Liesel takes an immediate liking to her foster father, Hans, who begins to teach her to read. Her foster mother, Rosa, at first seems scary and abusive, but as we get to know her better, we can see love behind Rosa's coarseness. In addition to her foster parents, Liesel meets her soon-to-be best friend and neighbor, Rudy Steiner. He will soon become the Clyde to her Bonnie in the stealing of books, and, occasionally, food.
Until the book burning organized by the Nazis to celebrate Adolph Hitler's birthday on April 20, 1940, Liesel isn't really aware of what it means to be living in Nazi Germany. Liesel hears a Nazi spokesman calling for death to Communists as well as Jews, a light bulb goes off. The only thing she knows about her father is that he was accused of being a communist. She realizes that Hitler is likely behind her father's disappearance, her brother's death, and her mother's recent disappearance. When Hans confirms her suspicions after the book burning, Hitler becomes Liesel's sworn enemy. This conflict helps drive Liesel to steal her second book, The Shoulder Shrug, from the burning pile.
Turns out that Erik Vandenburg, a Jewish man, saved Hans's life during World War I, giving up his own life in the process. Erik's son, Max, is now 22 and is running from the Nazis. Upon learning of his plight, Hans readily helps arrange for Max's journey to Himmel Street. Hiding a Jewish person in your home during World War II is one of the most dangerous things a German person could do. It means a constant state of paranoia for all involved. Liesel forms a fast friendship with Max.
During this time, Liesel also forms a complicated almost-friendship with the mayor's wife, Ilsa Hermann. Ilsa saw Liesel steal the The Shoulder Shrug. She also pays Rosa to do her laundry. When Liesel comes to her house on laundry visits, she invites Liesel into the library to read. When Ilsa has to stop using Rosa's services, Liesel begins stealing books from her, though Ilsa doesn't seem to mind.
Everything changes in October of 1942 when "The parade of Jews" (55.4) comes through Molching on the way to the nearby concentration camp Dachau. Hans feels compelled to offer one of the Jewish prisoners a piece of bread and is whipped along with the prisoner by Nazi guards. Hans is now desperately afraid the Nazis will search his house and find Max, so he sends Max away that very night. His house is never searched, but Hans is conscripted into the German army and has to leave Molching. Rosa and Liesel are left all alone.
These are the two most suspenseful questions for Liesel. She does everything she can to live life well in spite of her missing foster father and friend. Liesel spends a lot of time thieving with Rudy and helping Rosa. One night Rosa shows her the book Max left for her, a book written on painted-over pages of Adolph Hitler's Mein Kampf. This amazing book only increases Liesel's suspense over Max, even after Hans is sent back home after breaking a leg and barely escaping death.
In August of 1943, Liesel sees Max marching through Molching to the Dachau concentration camp. She bravely walks with him in the procession. She learns he was captured some six months earlier. The Nazi guards don't take well to Liesel's courageous display, and Liesel and Max are both whipped. Rudy stops Liesel from following Max any further, and possibly saves her life. Soon after, Liesel decides to give up books and Ilsa Herman's library. Ilsa presents her with a blank book, and Liesel begins writing the story of her life, called The Book Thief. She writes in the basement and is doing so when Himmel Street is bombed. Everybody she loves dies while they sleep. In despair over the deaths, Liesel drops her book, but it's picked up by Death.
First we learn that Liesel has died after living a happy life with a husband, kids, and grandkids. As the novel is about to close, we learn that she and Max are reunited at the end of World War II. But, we don't learn what happens to Max after that. The novel ends with Death giving Liesel back her book, The Book Thief, when he's taking her away. (See "What's Up With the Ending?" for more.)