When the book opens, Liesel Meminger is traveling to meet her new foster parents. Liesel’s mother knows that she will soon be killed by the Nazi party so she is sending them away when Liesel’s brother unexpectedly dies on the journey. They bury him beside the train tracks before continuing on, a rather grim start to the novel.
Upon her arrival, Liesel becomes instant friends with her adopted father, but dislikes her new mother’s strict rules. She beats up a fellow classmate the first day of school for teasing her about not being able to read or write, which catches the attention of her neighbor, Rudy Steiner. Rudy immediately falls in love with Liesel’s fiery spirit and fierce determination. They become best friends at once, going to school together, playing after, and sharing each other’s closest secrets.
Liesel’s father, Hans, teaches her how to read, and once she understands how to, she loves it immensely. Liesel lived in the heart of Nazi Germany where almost all books were banned or censored, and in an attempt to fully demonstrate just how “subversive” these novels were and further indoctrinate their citizens, the books were burned. The first book burning makes Liesel realize the inherent evil of the Nazi Party and, around this time, Liesel steals her first book, earning her the title of “the book thief.”
During the war, Liesel’s family hides a Jewish man who is on the run, Max Vandenburg. Liesel’s mother and father, despite the risk of being caught and killed, shelter him in their basement because Max’s father had saved Hans’ life during the first world war.
The novel ends with the city of Molching being bombed. Death reflects on each soul he picks up, in particular, Hans’ is described as “light as a feather,” and in this scene, the stereotypical characterization of death as an evil, malicious character who all humans will eventually meet, is transformed into something more beautiful. Death reflects on the moment when he picks up each person’s soul as it floats from their body: “I’m always finding humans at their best and worst.”
Zusak writes beautifully, his prose and imagery are both extraordinary, and, as many devastating events occur in this novel, the narration of the story by Death is perfect. This tragic yet fantastic novel provides an inside view to what it was like living in Nazi Germany during Hitler’s reign. Liesel’s point of view reveals not only the extent of the brainwashing within Germany during World War Two, and how certain individuals, like Liesel, stood up for and helped save the lives of those being persecuted, but also how Liesel’s love of books helped her endure the best and worst times of her life, and made her realize the unbounded power of learning and knowledge.