Here you will find a The Book Thief summary (Markus Zusak's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.
P.S.: As an Amazon Associate, we earn money from purchases made through links in this page. But the summaries are totally free!
Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024
In this narrative, Death serves as the storyteller, recounting his encounters with a book thief on three distinct occasions - on a train, at a plane crash, and after a bombing. Each encounter is represented by a color from the Nazi flag - white, red, and black. The book thief, Liesel, loses her brother Werner during their journey to Munich. During his burial, Liesel takes a book from a gravedigger, marking her first theft. She then moves to Molching with her mother to live with foster parents - Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Over time, she adjusts to her new life and forms a bond with Hans, who teaches her to read using the stolen book. Meanwhile, the political climate in Germany worsens with escalating war and domestic challenges. During a book-burning event in honor of Hitler's birthday, Liesel seizes another book. Liesel begins working for Rosa, delivering laundry to customers, including the mayor's wife, Ilsa Hermann. Liesel is captivated by Ilsa’s vast book collection and is given permission to read them. Concurrently, a German Jew named Max is hiding in Stuttgart in dire conditions. A friend supplies him fake identity documents hidden in Hitler’s autobiography, which enables him to escape to Molching. Max is concealed in the Hubermanns' basement due to Hans' old promise to Max's mother. Max and Liesel form a strong bond, with Max even creating a book for Liesel on the repainted pages of Hitler's autobiography. Over time, Liesel starts secretly stealing books from Frau Hermann's library with the help of her friend, Rudy, after Frau Hermann couldn’t afford Rosa's laundry services anymore. As the war escalates, Jewish prisoners are publicly paraded through town, headed for the concentration camp at Dachau. Max is forced to leave the Hubermanns' house for his safety after Hans aids a struggling Jewish man and draws suspicion. Rudy and Liesel scatter bread in the streets during a subsequent parade of Jews, while Rosa gives Liesel a book by Max. Hans survives a fatal bus crash during his military service and returns home. After another air raid, Liesel and Rudy discover a dying Allied fighter pilot, marking Death's second encounter with Liesel. Liesel notices Max among the prisoners during a subsequent parade. She confesses to Rudy about hiding Max, a secret she had never shared before. Liesel starts writing her own story in a blank notebook gifted by the mayor's wife. Her neighborhood is bombed one night, leaving Hans, Rosa and Rudy among the casualties. Liesel and Max reunite post-war, after which Liesel migrates to Australia, where she lives a long, fulfilling life. Upon her death, her soul is collected by Death, who presents her with the book she wrote years ago.
The story is narrated by Death himself who recounts his three encounters with the book thief, a young girl named Liesel Meminger. His first encounter with Liesel is on a train where he collects the soul of her younger brother, Werner. Years later, during a plane crash, Death sees Liesel again, and the final time in a bombed German town where Liesel drops a book that Death picks up. Liesel and Werner were on their way to Munich to live with a foster family due to their mother's illness and their father's absence. After Werner's sudden death, they stop at a town to bury him and Liesel finds a book dropped by a gravedigger. In Munich, Liesel lives with her new foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, on Himmel Street. Liesel is initially wary of the Hubermanns, particularly Rosa who has a harsh demeanor. However, Hans, a housepainter with a love for music, wins her over with his gentle nature. In her new home, Liesel is haunted by nightmares of her deceased brother. Her school life is also challenging due to her lack of education. On her tenth birthday, she receives a doll and a Hitler Youth uniform from the Hubermanns. She gradually settles into life on Himmel Street, making friends with her neighbor, Rudy Steiner, who is smitten with her. Liesel's life takes a turn when, after a nightmare, Hans discovers the book she stole from her brother's burial site. On learning that Liesel can barely read, Hans starts giving her reading lessons. However, Liesel's attempt to read in front of her class ends in a debacle, leading to her beating up two classmates. Overwhelmed by her grief and recent experiences, Liesel breaks down and is comforted by Rudy.
Death observes Germans' fondness for burning things, referencing the imminent Hitler's birthday celebration, where locals of Molching plan to incinerate books by non-Aryan authors. Simultaneously, Liesel is honing her literacy skills and gets two books as Christmas gifts from Hans, who bartered them with cigarettes. She assists Rosa with laundry deliveries, however, as the war intensifies, many customers withdraw their business. Rosa entrusts Liesel with picking up and delivering laundry, hoping people will be hesitant to turn away a young girl. At school, Liesel writes a letter to her mother and eagerly anticipates a reply. The social worker who brought Liesel to the Hubermanns informs her that her mother couldn't be located, yet Liesel remains hopeful for a response. Molching decorates its streets with German flags and swastikas in preparation for Hitler's birthday. Rosa panics when they can't locate their flag, fearing Nazi retribution, but they find it in time for the parade. The Hubermanns’ children, Hans Jr. and Trudy, return home for the festivities. Hans Jr. argues with his father about Hitler and criticizes him for painting over anti-Jewish graffiti, earning him the nickname “the Jew painter”. He believes his father's reluctance to actively support the Nazi party is dangerous, accusing him of indifference towards Germany. He spots Liesel reading and insists she should be reading MKPF, before calling his father a coward and storms out. Following a Hitler Youth parade, all reading materials deemed unfavorable to the Nazi Party are gathered in the town square for a bonfire. As a Nazi official denounces Jews and Communists, Liesel relates her parents' plight with Hitler's policies. Upon spotting her classmate Ludwig Schmeikl, injured and stuck in the crowd, she assists him to safety. As the bonfire blazes, Hans finds Liesel who admits her hatred for Hitler, prompting him to scold her for uttering such words in public. They practice Hitler salutes. As the fire dwindles, Liesel spots an unburned book, The Shoulder Shrug, and steals it unnoticed, only realizing later that a figure with fluffy hair had seen her. The book burns against her as she walks home with Hans.
Hans discovers the book Liesel took from the bonfire. He assures her he'll keep it a secret from Rosa, and Liesel promises to do the same for him. Liesel realizes that the woman who saw her steal the book was the mayor's wife, Ilsa Hermann. She cautiously avoids the mayor's house during her laundry-pickup rounds. When she finally visits, Frau Hermann invites her into the library, a room filled with books, leaving Liesel in awe. Elsewhere in Stuttgart, a Jewish man, Max, hides in a secret storage room, living off occasional deliveries of basic food items. He's promised a potential identity card. On Himmel Street, Liesel and Hans read a book about a Jewish hero, which is forbidden by the Nazis. Liesel starts visiting the mayor's house more frequently and reads in the library. She discovers a book dedicated to Johann Hermann, Ilsa's son, who died in World War I. Liesel expresses her condolences to Frau Hermann. When not reading or working, Liesel and Rudy play soccer. Due to food shortage, they often go hungry, joining a gang of kids who steal apples from a nearby orchard. Max leaves his hideout, boarding a train with a book hiding an identity card. He travels nervously from Stuttgart to Munich. Along with the concealed identity card, he carries a map, a key, and leftover food. Meanwhile, Liesel and Rudy's thieving continues, including causing a bicycle accident to steal food. Later, they sell chestnuts door-to-door, using the earnings to buy candy. Max finally reaches Molching and heads to the Hubermanns’ house, ready to enter with his key.
Max, the son of Erik Vandenburg, is welcomed into the Hubermann home. The storyline shifts back to World War I, when Hans, then a 22-year-old soldier, befriends Erik, a German Jew. Erik teaches Hans to play the accordion and saves his life by volunteering him for a non-combat task, sparing him from a battle that kills the rest of their troop, including Erik. Hans carries Erik's accordion throughout the war and returns it to Erik's family afterwards. He's told to keep it and promises Erik's widow that he will help her if she ever needs him. As Hitler's power grows and Jews are persecuted, Hans remembers his Jewish friend Erik. However, after Hans starts losing business for being sympathetic to Jews, he reluctantly attempts to join the Nazi party. Seeing the brutal treatment of Jews makes him change his mind, leading him to retract his application. He is put on a waiting list and generally left undisturbed due to his skills as a painter and musician. Later, a man confronts him about his promise to help Erik's family, reminding Hans of his debt. Back to the present, now 24-year-old Max is allowed into the Hubermanns' home. The story then takes us back to Max's past, revealing his boldness and readiness to fight. He had a close friend Walter Kugler, who warned him about the impending danger of being a Jew during the Kristallnacht. Walter helped Max escape and hide, eventually providing him with fake identification that led him to Hans Hubermann's house. Upon arriving at the Hubermanns', Max is fed and put to sleep in Liesel's room. Hans later explains to Liesel his connection with Max and makes her promise to keep the secret. After waking from a three-day sleep, Max moves to the basement. The Hubermanns' household adapts to Max's presence, with everyone taking turns to bring him food. During the winter, Max starts sleeping in the house due to the cold basement. Liesel and Max bond over shared nightmares and Liesel starts stealing newspapers with blank crosswords for Max. When Liesel turns twelve, Max, with no gift to give, crafts a story named "The Standover Man" from the painted-over pages of an old book. It narrates all the people who played significant roles in his life, ending with Liesel, who became his friend.
The narrative begins with Death ominously predicting Rudy's demise in less than two years, without revealing the cause. The story transitions back to Himmel Street, where Liesel lends a hand in giving Max a haircut. She continues reading The Whistler at the mayor's residence, refusing the offer to take the book home as she enjoys reading a bit during each laundry delivery. She diligently collects discarded newspapers with blank crosswords for Max and paints a picture of the weather for him, which Max reciprocates by illustrating on the basement wall. When by himself, Max exercises to regain his health and dreams of fighting Hitler. In a shared effort, Hans, Rosa, Liesel and Max whitewash the leftover pages of MKPF for Max to write another tale. When Germany invades Russia in June 1941, it causes Russia to form an alliance with Britain. Consequently, Molching's mayor advises residents to brace for challenging times. During Liesel's next visit, Frau Hermann presents her with a letter for Rosa, announcing they can no longer employ her laundry services due to financial constraints. While she gives Liesel The Whistler, inviting her to continue reading in the library, Liesel angrily berates Frau Hermann for being consumed by her son's death, hurling the book at her feet. At home, Liesel tries to take responsibility for Rosa losing her job, but Rosa is unconvinced. Rudy faithfully attends his Hitler Youth meetings with the hearing-impaired Tommy Müller, who often disrupts the march due to his inability to hear commands. When Rudy defends Tommy, they both end up performing strenuous exercises on a mucky field. Rudy and Liesel resume their apple-stealing escapades under a new leader, Viktor Chemmel, who doesn't take kindly to them. Rudy endures harsh treatment from his cruel Hitler Youth leader, Franz Deutscher, who forces him to do physical exercises in cow dung. In an attempt to lift his spirits, Liesel takes Rudy to the mayor's house where an open library window presents an opportunity. Liesel retrieves The Whistler under the pretense of stealing food. Rudy's failed attempt at stealing a potato gets him in trouble with Deutscher, who assaults him and cuts his hair when Rudy can't recall Hitler's birthday. This leads to Rudy quitting the Hitler Youth meetings. Returning to their group of apple thieves, Viktor Chemmel spots The Whistler with Liesel, throwing it into the river. Rudy dives in to rescue the book for Liesel, and once again, his request for a kiss in return is denied.
During Christmas Eve, Liesel creates a snowman in the basement for Max. However, Max falls seriously ill and lapses into a coma. Death visits him but doesn’t claim his soul. Liesel starts bringing Max gifts from outdoors, like a pinecone, a feather, and a candy wrapper. Her father suggests she gift Max a cloud, so she notes its details and leaves a description by Max's bedside. Despite reading the last chapters of The Whistler to him in one sitting, Max remains in the coma. Meanwhile, Liesel and Rudy sneak into the mayor’s house through an open window and steal another book, The Dream Carrier. They believe the mayor’s wife, Frau Hermann, intentionally left the window open for Liesel to steal more books. Liesel starts reading the new book to the unconscious Max. Rosa and Hans deliberate over what to do if Max dies and how to dispose of his body discreetly. All members of the Hubermann family realize that Max's sickness leaves extra food for them, but no one acknowledges this fact. Liesel continues dreaming of her deceased brother, but in her dreams he morphs into Max. In mid-March, Max awakens, which thrills Liesel. Simultaneously, Death reports from Cologne where a bombing has claimed 500 lives. In Molching, Nazi soldiers start inspecting basements for their potential as bomb shelters. During a soccer game, Liesel realizes she must alert Rosa, Hans, and Max about the inspection. She manages to get injured in the game, drawing Hans away to warn Max. They are successful in hiding Max when a soldier comes to check their basement. Eventually, summer comes, and Death poetically describes the sky as "Jew-colored," as he collects the souls of French Jews in a German prison in Poland. He likens the sun above the clouds to a "blond" and the sky to a "giant blue eye."
While Molching braces for potential bombings, Hans's painting skills are needed to paint black blinds for air raid blackouts. Many locals pay him with food or cigarettes, as they cannot afford his charges. Hans is often accompanied by Liesel, who helps him with his job and listens to his accordion music. They once get paid with Champagne, leading Liesel to swear off the drink, believing it will never taste as good again. Concurrently, Rudy prepares for the Hitler Youth Carnival, aiming to secure four gold medals like his hero, Jesse Owens. He manages to win three races but disqualifies himself from the fourth on purpose. Liesel pilfers another book, A Song in the Dark, from the Hermann library. As summer concludes, she finds a dictionary left by the mayor's wife, Frau Hermann, with a message encouraging her to enter the house through the front door next time. When Molching experiences its first air raid, Liesel, Hans, and Rosa must leave Max behind to seek refuge in a neighbor's basement. In the basement, Liesel worries about Max's safety if their house is bombed. After the raid, they find Max safe, who reveals he witnessed the outside world for the first time in two years. During subsequent raids, Liesel reads The Whistler aloud, bringing calm to everyone in the shelter. A neighbor, Frau Holtzapfel, later requests Liesel to read to her regularly in exchange for coffee, and Rosa allows this. A convoy carrying Jews to Dachau concentration camps passes through Molching. Hans helps a struggling old man, earning accusations of being a 'Jew lover.' Realizing Max's shelter in the basement is no longer safe, Max departs from Himmel Street the next night. He leaves a note for Hans, thanking him for his help. Hans suffers contempt from the townsfolk, including Frau Diller, for his actions. When the Gestapo eventually arrives, they are there for Rudy, not Hans.
Nazi soldiers show up at Rudy's home, wanting to take him to a Nazi training school owing to his physical ability and intellect. Rudy's dad, Alex, refuses and volunteers himself in place of Rudy. Concurrently, Hans is accepted into the Nazi Party and is conscripted into the German army. Hans departs for duty, leaving Rosa and his accordion under Liesel's care. After Rudy's father departs, Rudy wants to hunt down Hitler but is convinced by Liesel to return home. They visit his father's deserted clothing store without entering. Rosa clutches Hans's accordion at night. Hans is dispatched to Essen, Germany, to aid in an Air Raid Special Unit, which aids air raid survivors and collects victims' bodies. During an air raid, an elderly man perishes in Hans's arms. Back in Molching, Liesel worries about Hans, Max and Rudy's father. She continues her readings to Frau Holtzapfel. That winter, Jewish parades persist. Rudy and Liesel scatter bread for the prisoners during a parade and hide to observe. They are caught by a soldier, who reprimands Liesel. Liesel persists in reading aloud during air raids. Rosa presents her with a book left by Max, "The Word Shaker". It narrates Hitler's realization of words' power and his intention to manipulate them. The story describes words as seeds on trees and word shakers who shake these seeds. A young word shaker grows a tall tree from a tear-shed seed and resists soldiers' attempts to chop it. Finally, a man arrives and hammers nails into the tree. The tree falls when they descend. Liesel dreams about a tree upon reading the story. During Christmas, Liesel and Rudy sneak into his father's suit shop and steal a suit. Their lips almost meet, but they don't kiss.
Liesel and Rudy visit the mayor’s house again to take a book and find cookies left by Frau Hermann. As they munch on them, Liesel spots Frau Hermann and realizes she owns the library, not the mayor. The scene switches to Hans who is playing cards with his air-raid squad in Essen. A squad member, Reinhold Zucker, develops a grudge against Hans, which will later end in his own death. Back in Molching, Liesel visits Frau Holtzapfel to read to her, only to be met by her son, Michael Holtzapfel, who has returned injured from Stalingrad. He informs Rosa of his brother's death and mentions that Rosa and Hans’s son, Hans Jr., is also in Russia. Liesel leaves the plate from the cookies at the mayor’s house and observes Rosa praying for Hans. She also prays for all those lost in the war. A twist of fate occurs in Essen when Hans trades places with Zucker in a truck. Soon, a tire puncture causes an accident in which Hans breaks his leg and Zucker dies. Following this, Hans is told he will be transferred back to Munich for office work. He writes to Liesel and Rosa about his luck. Liesel tells Rudy about Hans' return, which elicits joy but also concern about his own father. Frustrated with the war, Rudy attempts to rob the mayor’s house but backs out. During another air raid, Frau Holtzapfel refuses to go to the shelter. Liesel threatens to stop reading to her, but Frau Holtzapfel stays put. Her son, Michael, feels guilty for leaving his mother behind. Eventually she enters the shelter, and Michael pleads her forgiveness. After the bombing, they find a charred plane and a dying enemy pilot. As Liesel and Rudy approach him, Death, who has come for the pilot’s soul, recognizes Liesel. Rudy gives the pilot a teddy bear and the pilot thanks him in English. Death takes the pilot’s soul. Finally, Hans is released from the hospital and returns home, sharing his war experiences with Liesel and Rosa, and comforting Liesel.
Death foreshadows an imminent bombing on Himmel Street that claims the lives of several characters, including Rudy, Rosa, and Hans, but Liesel survives. She is in her house's basement, engrossed in a book she wrote about her life. Liesel is rescued from the ruins, still clutching her book and crying for Hans. The narrative then rewinds to share the happenings prior to the disaster. Molching is relatively calm for three months, except for the ongoing parades of Jews. During this period, Michael Holtzapfel, burdened by guilt and loss, hangs himself. After his funeral, Liesel continues reading to his mother, Frau Holtzapfel. In a heart-wrenching scene, Liesel recognizes Max among the Jewish prisoners parading through Molching. She calls out to him and joins him in the march. When they're separated by soldiers, Liesel fights to rejoin him. After this traumatic experience, Liesel is bedridden for days, later telling Rudy about Max and showing him "The Word Shaker," where Rudy is referred to as a boy with "lemon-colored hair." The two friends almost share a kiss, but not quite. Death ominously mentions that Rudy has only a month to live. Liesel later visits the mayor's house, where she tears pages out of a book in a fit of despair. She leaves an apology note for Frau Hermann, who kindly brings her a blank book for her to write her own story. Liesel starts writing about her life, starting with her brother's death and her first act of book thieving. As she's revising her story, the bombers strike and flatten Himmel Street. The air raid sirens are too late, and most residents die in their sleep. Liesel, however, survives the bombing, ensconced in her basement. After being pulled from the pile of rubble, she finds and kisses Rudy's lifeless body, bids farewell to her foster parents, and retrieves Hans's accordion. She leaves her life story, titled "The Book Thief," in the rubble, where it's picked up by garbage collectors. Death, however, rescues it.
Death, weary from his job of transporting human souls post-death, shares that Liesel passed away in a Sydney suburb, far from her childhood home on Himmel Street. She left behind a loving family and a life full of friends and memories of her loved ones, including Hans, Rosa, Rudy, and her brother. Following the bombing, Liesel was left with nothing but her memories and Hans's accordion. She was eventually taken in by the mayor and Frau Hermann. Liesel spent her grief-stricken days talking with Frau Hermann, refusing to wash the ash from the bombing off her skin. She eventually bade her final farewell to Rudy at the river where he had saved her book. Time passes and Liesel revisits the ruins of Himmel Street, hoping to find her lost books. She reunites with Rudy's father, Alex, who has returned from the war. Liesel shares her tragic last moments with Rudy. As life goes on, Alex reopens his shop, and Liesel spends time with him. Their old friend Max returns, leading to a heartfelt reunion with Liesel. Death resumes narrating, stating that Liesel's story is one among many he encounters. When he collected Liesel's soul, he showed her the book he had saved from the bombing, which moved her deeply. Death confesses his struggle to comprehend the duality of human nature, capable of both immense kindness and intense violence. His parting words express his haunting by the very humans he serves.