The year is 1939. The world is wrestling with the idea of another war, and the German people are teetering on the edge of a dreadful new reality. With the help of lively characters, poetic prose and an unusual narration by Death, The Book Thief takes us on a remarkable journey alongside the residents of one small street of one small town in war-torn Germany.
Liesel Meminger is a little girl lost when she arrives at a strange house on Himmel Street, feeling confused and alienated by a war she doesn’t understand. Her new foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, soon make her feel at home, although Hans’ gentle character is in stark contrast to his wife’s brusque embrace of motherhood.
Liesel befriends a boy who lives along the street, Rudy Steiner, and the two become inseparable. Important events such as Hitler’s birthday, book burning ceremonies and the horrors and destruction of the war unfolding in Europe’s fields and skies, are wound around day-to-day life for Liesel, Rudy and the other residents of Himmel Street.
Liesel struggles at first to read and write, but with Hans’ soft coaxing and dedicated coaching she is captivated by the world of words. Slowly but surely, Liesel begins to link the incredible power of words to the way Hitler is controlling and slowly destroying her homeland. Books become Liesel’s lifeline, and she finds solace in words when she befriends the Mayor’s wife, who lets her read in their well-stocked library. Each of the books that come into Liesel’s life has a special significance; she treasures links to her past and the comforting daily reading lessons with Hans.
As Liesel tries to come to terms with the significance of Hitler’s rule, the Hubermanns' daily cycle of survival is jeopardised when a Jewish refugee, Max, begs a hiding place in their basement. The family struggle to keep their dangerous secret safe, and to keep Max alive in the achingly cold cellar. Liesel’s friendship with Max slowly grows, and through their shared love of words he becomes a brother figure to her. She’s devastated when Max has to leave; it’s no longer safe for him to stay. Soon afterwards he is captured and marched along Himmel Street to the nearby concentration camp, to Liesel’s despair.
As the war rips the country apart, and Allied bombs fall perilously close to Himmel Street, Liesel realises that words alone will never be enough to save the people she loves. But perhaps they can shine a brighter light on the beauty of human tenderness and compassion that still resist the hatred inflicted by Hitler and war.
The Book Thief is about growing up in Nazi Germany. But it’s also about hope, love, family, rebelliousness, guilt, the human spirit and the beauty that tragedy can bring.