The novel focuses on characters in incredibly dark and difficult situations. And just like how Death, the story's narrator, is hoping to "to prove to [himself] that you, and your human existence, are worth it" (4.33), the novel seems to be looking for glimmers of hope.
The characters of the novel do despair, but always manage to rise again with renewed courage. The novel makes us want to believe that humans can grow, learn, and change. Yet, the tone admits that a world without the fear and hatred that led to the Holocaust may be a long way off. Even so, the novel seems to hope to inspire readers to take a stand against injustice whenever opportunities to do present themselves.
The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a young German girl coming of age in Nazi Germany. The novel focuses on the joys and sorrows of Liesel, her foster family, and the Jewish man they hide from the Nazis.
While it's set during a historical time period, The Book Thief doesn't give us a dry, fact-based history lesson. We have to go outside the novel to get details on many of the complex events discussed. Rather, the novel is more concerned with looking at the Holocaust and Word War II from a particular point-of-view—the point-of-view of Liesel Meminger, as told by Death, the narrator.
The title most obviously refers to Liesel Meminger, the chief book thief of the story. (Liesel's #1! Woohoo!)
She's officially given the title by her best friend Rudy Steiner at the end of Chapter 42. In this chapter, Liesel steals The Whistler from Ilsa Hermann's library—the first of many such library raids. But, since Rudy is her accomplice, isn't he a book thief, too? Come to think of it, he's more than just an accomplice. He actual re-steals The Whistler from the Amper River, where the second leader of the fruit stealing gang has thrown it after stealing it from Liesel (who stole it from Ilsa Herman). So Rudy's a little bit of a book thief, too.
Death, our narrator is also a book thief. When Liesel drops her newly completed memoir, The Book Thief, after learning that all those she knows and loves on Himmel Street have died from bomb blasts, Death steals the book from a trash truck.
And then there's Max Vandenburg, the Jewish man hiding from the Nazis, who commits an ultimate act of figurative book thievery. He paints the pages of Adolph Hitler's book, Mein Kampf, white and then sketches loving and frightening words and pictures of his life over the paint.
Hitler, while we're on the topic, is actually the biggest book thief of the novel. This becomes apparent in Part 2, which features a massive book burning in celebration of Hitler's birthday in 1940. (You can watch footage of an actual Nazi book burning here.)
Of course, this is no isolated incident. Book burnings occurred throughout Germany during Hitler's reign. Destroying the books was symbolic of the desire to destroy the people who wrote the books and the people represented in the books. Hitler's targets were primarily Jewish people, but he also went after communists, disabled people, homosexual people, Jehovah's Witnesses, Gypsies and others considered "undesirable" by the Nazi regime.
With every act of book-thievery, Liesel and her crew steal back whatever words and books they can from Hitler, and even steal his book from him (though he doesn't know it!). Although this doesn't (arguably) make a huge difference in the grand scheme of things, it makes a huge difference in the lives of these tortured characters. The novel cautions us—don't take your books for granted. Someone could steal them from you at any moment.
And if someone does steal your books, will you be ready to steal them back?
No, Liesel doesn't meet Dorothy and the Scarecrow. But she does go down under and find a new Aussie homeland. And we think that's even better—there aren't any kangaroos in the Emerald City.
From the beginning of The Book Thief, Death, the narrator, foreshadows the bombing of Himmel Street. This terrible event kills all of Liesel's friends and loved ones.
Well, not quite all. One important person left in Liesel's life is Ilsa Hermann—the mayor's wife who gives Liesel access to a whole world of books. Her street isn't bombed, and Ilsa takes Liesel in, briefly, after Himmel Street is demolished. It's a pleasant and poignant surprise to see her reach out to Liesel in her time of need.
But, the real surprise comes after World War II has come to an end, when Max walks through the door of Alex Steiner's tailor shop, looking for Liesel. This happy reunion takes places in the Epilogue. And it's brief.
At this point, we've already learned that Liesel dies in Sydney, Australia (Markus Zusak's hometown) after a long, happy life which includes a husband, three kids, and even grandbabies. But Max's story ends when he and Liesel are reunited shortly after the war. Some readers find this really exasperating. Max is such a loveable character and we want to know about the rest of his life.
Other readers wonder if Max is the man Liesel marries and starts a family with. We think the novel does leave open this possibility. Although the age difference (about ten years) makes this scenario potentially icky, it's easy to see Max and Liesel becoming a couple in the future. It certainly seems like they can't live without each other... but whether this turns to romantic love, we can only wonder.
We also find it intriguing that Max is the only major character whom Death doesn't describe coming for. Death says he came for Liesel "only yesterday" (85.3). Since the novel was first published in 2005, we can assume that yesterday is sometime in or around 2005. Liesel would be about seventy-six years old, and Max about eighty-six, so it's possible he's still alive at the end of the novel.
But then again, maybe not. At the very end, Death takes Liesel's soul to Anzac Avenue (which is a real place) but maybe Death means an afterlife version. Anyhow, he takes her there and shows her The Book Thief, her book. We are told:
A few cars drove by, each way. Their drivers were Hitlers and Hubermanns, and Maxes, killers, Dillers, and Steiners… (88.13)
Notice how Death seems to count Max among the dead. This means that Liesel must have suffered from his death, but that everybody will soon be reunited in the afterlife, at least according to Death's rather vague description of it.
Now, let's look at the novel's final lines, spoken of course, by Death:
I'm haunted by humans. (88.17)
First, this is a cute (and morbid) pun. Humans are haunted by ghosts, and some might even say by Death. Death being haunted by humans is something we don't usually think about.
Second, this is how Death answers Liesel when she asks if her memoir, The Book Thief, (which he's finally returning to her) makes sense to him. We'll take that as a "Yes." Like Liesel, Death is haunted by what humans have to go through and what they do to each other—but most of all by their acts of kindness and love.
At the start of the novel Death says that the most painful part of the job is seeing "the survivors," "the leftover humans," "the ones who are left behind, crumbling among the jigsaw puzzle of realization, despair, and surprise" (1.20, 1.21, 1.22).
In other words, according to Death, it's easier to be dead than to be alive and deal with the loss of loved ones. Death is haunted by those humans, because he can't forget the suffering they face. In some ways, this is what Liesel's story, The Book Thief, is all about—even though she writes it before she loses Rudy and the Hubermanns.
So, in spite of our joy at finding Max alive, the novel ends on a rather melancholy note. We thinks that's totally appropriate, considering that almost all of the characters (and oodles of others) die in the story.
Most of The Book Thief takes place in the small, and fictional, town of Molching, just outside of non-fictional Munich, Germany. Molching is on the way to the concentration camp Dachau (which the novel does not enter). Himmel Street, where the Hubermanns and Steiners live, is where much of the action takes place. "Himmel," Death informs us, translates to "heaven":
Whoever named Himmel Street has a healthy sense of irony. Not that it was a living hell. It wasn't. But it sure wasn't heaven, either. (5.87)
Yet, because of the acts of kindness occurring inside 33 Himmel Street, the Hubermann home, and because of the tenderness of Rudy and Liesel's friendship, there is something heavenly about Himmel Street.
Other important action takes place on Munich Street, the main street in town. It is on Munich Street that Rudy is beaten by Franz Deutscher, the sadistic Hitler Youth leader, and it is on Munich Street that Liesel and Max are reunited when he's being made to march to Dachau. This is a clue that the city of Munich is very important to the setting of the story, and we'll talk about this city in a moment. First, here's a run through of some of the times and places covered in the novel.
The bulk of the novel takes place from 1939 to 1942. In January of 1939, Liesel comes to live with the Hubermanns on Himmel Street. The story traces her life over the next four years, up to the night Himmel Street is bombed and (almost) everyone she loves dies in their sleep. 1945 brings the end of Hitler, the end of the war, and the reunion of Max and Liesel. The epilogue takes us far into Liesel's future, to the time and place of her death in Sydney, Australia.
The story of how Max's father, Erik Vandenburg saves Hans' life in 1916 takes us (briefly) to France during World War I. It explains some of why Hans takes Max in. In Max's life story (beginning with his birth in 1916—the year his father dies) before coming to Himmel Street, we see (briefly) Max's hometown of Stuttgart. We return to Stuttgart and visit nearby Essen when Hans is conscripted into the "LSE – Luftwaffe Sondereinheit – Air Raid Special Unit" (65.2), or Leichensammler Einheit – Dead Body Collectors" (65.3), as punishment for giving bread to a Jewish man.
The other places mentioned—Poland, Cologne, and Stalingrad—are shown in Death's diary. They are places where he's working overtime and thinks we need to know about. Stalingrad is important to our knowledge of World War II. As Death implies, Russia is still reeling from Joseph Stalin's "murder of his own people" (45.15) when Hitler invades Russia.
Stalin is still in power when Hitler invades Stalingrad (named after guess-who), resulting in over 16 million civilian casualties (Source) on top of the soldiers on all sides and war-related deaths elsewhere in Russia. But, Russia with Stalin at the helm did manage to hold back the Nazis. In fact, the Russian victory at Stalingrad marked a turning point in the war. When minor character Michael Holtzapfel comes back from Stalingrad, missing three fingers and his brother, the "snows of Stalingrad" (72.69) come into the houses on Himmel Street.
When a Jew shows up at your place of residence in the early hours of the morning, in the very birthplace of Nazism, you're likely to experience extreme levels of discomfort. Anxiety, disbelief, paranoia. (33.4)
It happened in a small town of Hitler's heartland. (80.1)
It's easy to see that both of these quotes refer to Molching. It's obvious to readers there's lots of Nazi activity in Molching, but "birthplace of Nazism" and "Hitler's heartland"? Death is being a bit cryptic.
Some research into the history of Nazism show that Death places these labels on Molching because it's close to the city of Munich. It's not at all hard to see Munich as "the birthplace of Nazism" and "Hitler's heartland." Here are a few reasons why:
So, as you can see a lot of Nazi activity was definitely centered around Munich, which makes the nearby town a pretty good setting for a novel exploring the effects of Nazism.
Zusak has a few things to say on the matter as well:
I […] hope that readers of any age will see another side of Nazi Germany […]. I wanted them to see people who were unwilling to fly the Nazi flag and the boys and girls who thought the Hitler Youth was boring and ridiculous. If nothing else, there's another side that lives beneath the propaganda reels that are still so effective decades later. Those were the pockets I was interested in. (Source: Zusak, Markus. "A Reader's Guide" found in The Book Thief. )
Laws and propaganda are important aspects of The Book Thief's setting in Nazi Germany. The laws and the propaganda set the mood of the times, and a sick mood it was, as the novel shows us. Before the war, Nazis passed laws to effectively legalize the crimes they were committing and the crimes they intended to commit. From 1933 (when the Nazi Party took power) to 1939 (when the war began), the Nazis issued thousands of laws restricting every aspect of Jewish life (Source).
The novel alludes to many of these laws and restrictions, such as Jews being required to wear yellow stars and otherwise identify themselves as Jewish. Jews were barred from government jobs, from being teachers, from attending school, from practicing their professions, from joining the military, from admission to hospitals, and from living among non-Jewish people.
The Nuremburg Laws stripped Jewish people of their German citizenship and their right to vote, yet barred them from leaving the country. Laws authorized the confiscation of all Jewish property, the arrest, detention and torture of Jews in concentration camps, and, ultimately, the large scale murder of Jewish people.
As we discuss in the theme "Language and Communication," Hitler and the Nazi Party used mass communication technology—radio, film, and print material—to involve the German people in carrying out the Holocaust. In this propaganda, Jews and other groups were spoken of in dehumanizing terms, referred to as vermin, cockroaches, as "a world plague," and represented as dangerous to society.
Nazi propaganda is also heavy on the euphemism. A euphemism is "an inoffensive or indirect expression that is substituted for one that is considered offensive or too harsh" (Source). Nazis used words like "cleansing," "evacuation," "resettlement," "special treatment," and "extermination" to refer to the murder of Jewish people (Source).
The US Holocaust Memorial Museum's Propaganda site and the German Propaganda Archive are loaded with visual material, writings, speeches, a wide range of Nazi propaganda. Check it out these resources deeper look at the world Liesel is living in.
There are two basements in the novel, both on Himmel Street. One is in the Hubermann house, and the other in the house of the Fielders. On a practical level, both basements are places to hide, stressing the culture of fear and hiding afflicting everybody in Germany.
Jewish people, like Max, if they are "lucky," are hiding from the Nazis in basements. German citizens, like the residents of Himmel Street, are hiding from the Allies' air raids. The basements are cold, uncomfortable and cramped. Life in the basement is uncertain. Each breath might be your last. There is a fine line between safety and danger in these basements.
But something special something besides hiding, fear, and temporary safety is going on in these two basements. The basement is where Liesel and Max forge their friendship, where Liesel learns to read, where Max writes his books, where Rosa, Hans, and Liesel have their snowball fight. There is love in the Hubermanns' basement.
Similarly, in the Fielders' basement/bomb shelter, Liesel realizes that she can use her love of reading to provide much needed comfort to those around her. In the Fielders' basement, she becomes "the word shaker," when she begins reading to her friends and neighbors. Later, in the days leading up to the bombing of Himmel Street, the basement becomes a seat of creativity for Liesel as she writes her life story, as it was for Max when he wrote The Word Shaker.
Now, basements are under houses, right? Creativity and artistic expression are often believed to come from the subconscious, that place under the surface of our conscious thoughts. In addition to the practical uses of the basements in the story, Zusak seems to be drawing on that symbolic meaning of the basement as well. Basements are being used to help draw the mood of the story, but also to highlight the creativity of characters like Liesel and Max.
There is also a bitter irony here. Liesel and Max are creative, loving people in spite of their circumstances, not because of them. They did not need to be locked in a basement to do creative work. At the same time, deep suffering and knowing they could die at any moment adds urgency and power to their work. We can celebrate that, while acknowledging that it would be better if they weren't in the positions they are in.
The Book Thief features innovative stylistic techniques. The most obvious innovation (which some readers love and others can't stand) is narrator Death's use of boldface text to relay certain information, such as:
*** A SMALL ANNOUNCEMENT***
ABOUT RUDY STEINER
He didn't deserve to die the way he did. (37.9)
As in the example provided, these sections are used for a few of Death's favorite pastimes: foreshadowing and plot-spoiling. Of course, he doesn't confine this to the boldfaced passages the novel is laced with it. Death is aware of his habit, and after revealing Rudy's imminent death, Death explains:
Of course I'm being rude. I'm spoiling the ending […]. […] I don't have much interest in building mystery. Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It's the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me. (38.1)
But, be careful not to trust Death too much. He's a decent guy and all, but he fools us into thinking there are no surprises left for us at the end. When, in actuality, he withholds from us the fact that Liesel and Max will be reunited after World War II ends. Well, we can sure forgive him for that. The foreshadowing of the other events makes us let down our guards and be surprised.
Death isn't all talk—he also provides illustrations. He gives us books within his books. The Book Thief, the novel we are reading, contains two complete, illustrated stories written by Max Vandenburg. These are The Standover Man and The Word Shaker, both written on painted-over pages of Adolph Hitler's Book, Mein Kampf.
You should really see this. We can still see the traces of Hitler's book, peeking through the white paint. Plus, there are excerpts from the other books that are important to Liesel. This includes her own book, The Book Thief, the story of her life, which Death rescues from a trash truck and reads over and over again before returning it to her when she dies.
The accordion starts off as a symbol of hope and comfort. When Liesel begins reading to the residents of Himmel Street during the air raids, she feels like she's giving them what Hans gives her when he plays the accordion – distraction, comfort, and hope.
For Hans, the accordion is a symbol of the man who gave it to him, the man who saved his life. That man is Erik Vandenburg, Max's father. For Max, the accordion symbolizes the possibility that he'll survive the Holocaust. It's the link between him and Hans Hubermann, the man willing to risk his life to help him.
When Hans leaves for Essen, he leaves the accordion behind. For Rosa in particular it becomes a symbol of Hans himself. When Liesel sees her wearing it ever night, but never daring a note, she realizes how much Hans means to her foster mother.
When Liesel finds the accordion among the wreckage of Himmel Street after Hans has died, it is a symbol of great loss, but one which carries much of her story within it. It is yet another symbol of the novel's argument that literature, music, and other arts can provide sustenance in times of great suffering.
Hitler and the Nazi Party used mass communication, like radio, film, and print, to involve the German people in carrying out the Holocaust. To get the job done, Hitler employed a Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. Hitler, reproduced in photos, film, and radio broadcasts, becomes a symbol of power and leadership for those who follow him, and a symbol of horror and terror for his targets.
Through the reproduction of his image, his voice, and his symbols – the Swastika and the Nazi flag – Hitler becomes an omnipresent force for everybody in Germany. These are the symbols by which the people are enlisted to support Hitler, and they are backed up by some of the most horrific actions you've heard of. They are, ultimately, symbols of fear, irrational prejudice, and terror.
Today, the swastika, the symbol featured in the Nazi flag, has come to symbolize Hitler and the Holocaust and Nazism, but this wasn't always so. The word "swastika" comes from Sanskrit (an ancient language of India) and means "good fortune" (source). The symbol itself is over five thousand years old. Due to its misuse by Hitler, it will be a long time, if ever, before it can be used effectively to positive ends.
Much of the novel's symbolism derives from the books it features. Check out Liesel's "Character Analysis" for lots of discussion on how these books comment symbolically on Liesel, and how book stealing functions as a symbol of resistance against the Nazi regime.
The book burning scene is important to Liesel, but symbolically, it goes beyond her story. First of all, it's a symbol of the countless other book burning in Nazi Germany. It's a bit of a reduction to call these events "book burnings." As the novel indicates, it's not only books being burned, but also art, pamphlets, anything authored by a Jew, or which speaks favorably about Jewish people.
These burnings don't target a single author, or even a single idea, but the collective body of creative and intellectual work of a large group of people. This goes beyond censorship or protest, and it goes beyond books. For the Nazis, Jewish books symbolize Jewish people. The destruction of these books symbolized their goals, the destruction of the Jewish people. The crematoria, chambers where the bodies of Jewish people were incinerated, are notorious. The book burning in the novel reminds us of those crematoria, and helps keep us from getting too comfortable in the story. It also reminds us that Nazi propaganda techniques included destroying information, as well as spreading it.
Death's fascination with the colors of the sky functions as imagery. It helps cast the mood of the story, and creates much of the atmosphere. By focusing on the sky-colors at the times of human deaths, Death suggests that there is a connection between a person's death and the natural world. The idea that each person dies with their own color of sky presents a vision of a universe which cares about humans, and isn't indifferent to them. For Death, the colors are also edible, and he sucks on them for distraction while he's on the job.
The Book Thief is narrated by an extremely overworked being who identifies himself as Death.
Some readers love Death as a narrator; others not so much. We tend to think it's an interesting choice. Markus Zusak needed a narrator who could provide Liesel's point of view, but also provide information that Liesel, as a young girl in a relatively isolated town, wouldn't know about.
He needed a narrator who could provide snapshots of the World War II outside of Himmel Street. Zusak could've just used a third-person narrator, but by using Death the author is able to offer a unique perspective on all the death and dying occurring during this historical period.
Now, Death isn't omniscient—he doesn't know and see everything that's going on in the world. He's gets his information just like we do—from his personal experiences and from what he reads and hears about from others. In this story, much of what Death relates to us falls into the second category. His chief source for the story he's telling is The Book Thief, the book Liesel writes about her life.
But, for Liesel's story to make sense to us, Death needs to tell us about what's going on in other parts of Germany, Poland, and Russia during World War II, to provide us with details Liesel would have no way of knowing at the time she's writing her book. Dying is one of the main things going on. He interweaves this larger context with the story of Liesel and the people she loves and loses.
Check out Zusak had to say about why he chose Death as the narrator for The Book Thief:
Well, I thought I'm writing a book about war, and there's that old adage that war and death are best friends, but once you start with that idea, then I thought, well, what if it's not quite like that? Then I thought what if death is more like thinking, well, war is like the boss at your shoulder, constantly wanting more, wanting more, wanting more, and then that gave me the idea that Death is weary, he's fatigued, and he's haunted by what he sees humans do to each other because he's on hand for all of our great miseries. (Source)
Now what do you think? Was Death a good choice for the role of narrator? What would the book have been like if it was narrated by a third-person narrator? Or by Liesel?
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.
It turns out that Erik Vandenburg, a Jewish man, saved Hans' life during World War I, giving up his own life in the process. Erik's son, Max, is now twenty two 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.)