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Literature / The Book Thief

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"It's just a small story really, about, among other things:
* A girl
* Some words
* An accordionist
* Some fanatical Germans
* A Jewish fist fighter
* And quite a lot of thievery
— Death, from the prologue

Liesel Meminger watched Death take her brother. She was on a train to her new home in Molching, her mother unable to support them any longer. She's brought to 33 Himmel Street where her foster parents, Hans Hubermann and his wife, Rosa, live. Hans is a kind and gentle man while Rosa a hot-headed woman who expresses her love through a foul mouth.

They aren't the only people Liesel will eventually form bonds with: there's Rudy Steiner, an energetic troublemaker with a habit for stealing; Max Vandenburg, a Jewish fist fighter; and Ilsa Hermann, the mayor's melancholic wife who lets Liesel use her library. Ilsa even lets Liesel steal from her home after the young girl catches Rudy's habit of thievery. However, instead of nabbing food for an ever-empty belly, Liesel steals to feed a different kind of hunger: words.

A war-torn Germany will teach Liesel the power of words; that they can be tools of destruction and cruelty as much as creation and kindness. As Liesel learns and grows, Death will be a passive observer of Liesel's life and that of the humans he is obligated to take to the afterlife.

The Book Thief is a 2005 historical fiction novel by Markus Zusak. The novel is split into ten sections, each one named after a book that is important to Liesel in some way. Sections are further split into chapters of varying lengths.

A film adaptation was released theatrically on November 8, 2013. It was directed by Brian Percival and the script written by Michael Petroni.

This work provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: The movie cuts out some lesser elements from the book, and the main plotlines featured in the film are simplified. It also cut a few of the minor characters out; Franz Deutscher had a much larger role in the film since he became a composite of several minor characters.
  • Alliterative Name: Liesel's foster father's first and last names both start with the letter "h": Hans Hubermann.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Even though Hans and Rosa are locked in The Masochism Tango, Hans does genuinely care for Rosa, while Rosa prayed for Hans' safety with his accordion every night when he was sent to war.
  • Batman in My Basement: Liesel and the Hubermanns hide Max in their basement thanks to a promise Hans made to Max's father. The basement is littered with painting supplies, such as drop clothes, so it provides some needed hiding material for Max. There are still a couple of close calls, such as when a Nazi inspects the basement to check whether it is a viable bomb shelter. Liesel and the Hubermann's each hold their collective breaths while trying to remain nonchalant. Mercifully, the basement is declared unfit and the Nazi doesn't find Max.
  • Beige Prose: Several sections of Death's narration utilize very basic prose:
    Sister Maria.
    Was not impressed.
  • Berserk Button: Do not call Liesel stupid. One of her classmates learned this the hard way when he called her stupid for being unable to read. After being the butt of such jokes and name-calling for days, Lieself finally snaps and starts beating him up without restraint.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Himmel Street is bombed, with everybody who lived there dying except Liesel, through a stroke of good luck. (She was in the basement working on her writing when the bomb dropped.) Max survives his experiences in the concentration camps and manages to reunite with Liesel. Liesel herself lives a long and fulfilling life; she marries, has children, and dies happily in her Manhattan apartment. When Death meets her to pick up her soul, he also reunites her with her childhood memoir.
  • Blackface: Rudy pretends to be the black Olympic runner Jesse Owens by painting himself black with a mixture of water and charcoal then runs an imaginary race. He doesn't realize that trying to emulate a black man could land him in serious trouble with the Nazis, something that his father quickly sets him straight on.
  • Book Burning: The Nazis hold a book burning in Molching of any printed material deemed "objectionable". Liesel rescues a novel called The Shoulder Shrug which includes a Jewish protagonist.
  • Casanova Wannabe: Rudy keeps trying to get a kiss out of Liesel, but Liesel spurns him each time, even after she grows a crush on him. Death lampshades this trait:
    In fact, Rudy Steiner was one of those audacious little bastards who actually fancied himself with the ladies. Every childhood seems to have exactly such a little juvenile in its midst and mists. He's the boy who refuses to fear the opposite sex, purely because everyone else embraces that particular fear, and he's the type who is unafraid to make a decision. In this case, Rudy had already made up his mind about Liesel Meminger.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Liesel's habit of reading and writing in the Hubermann's basement winds up saving her life when the bombs drop on Himmel. The basement shielded her the damage blows.
  • Chubby Mama, Skinny Papa: Liesel's foster parents have opposite body types: Hans is a skinny man while Rosa is a stocky woman.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Rosa Hubermann peppers her speech with casual, swear-based insults, "saukerl", "saumensch" and "asshole" being her favorites. This extends to both her husband, Hans, and her foster daughter, Liesel. A minor character named Pfiffikus makes Rosa "look like a saint and a wordsmith" according to Death.
  • Corporal Punishment: Liesel gets beaten as a form of punishment on more than one occasion.
    • In order to test her student's reading aptitude, she calls each student to the front of the glass to read a passage from a particular book. She intentionally looks over Liesel, but Rudy urges Liesel to go through with it. However, she can't read well at all at this point, so Liesel recites a section she's memorized from The Gravedigger's Handbook. The teacher orders her into the hall and swats her there, much to the humor of the class.
    • The incidents lead many of her classmates to bully her for her illiteracy. One in particular, Ludwig, repeatedly calls her stupid. Liesel eventually snaps and ruthlessly beats up Ludwig and one other for seemingly siding with him. A teacher intervenes and gives Liesel a far worse swatting than before. There was no amusement this time from the class.
  • Covers Always Lie: Death brings up the classic scythe-wielding, cloak-wearing imagery usually associated with him to explicitly state that that's not what he looks like. Many covers ignore this, depicting Death with this standard imagery.
  • Cranky Neighbor: The antagonistic Frau Holtzapfel makes it a point to spit on the Hubermann's door because she has a long-standing feud with Rosa for reasons unspecified. Holtzapfel gets friendlier after Liesel starts to make regular visits to her house to read to her.
  • Daddy's Girl: Liesel grows to genuinely love her adoptive father Hans.
  • Demoted to Extra: Death is the narrator in the book and even physically interacts with the cast on a couple of occasions. In the film, he's given a few voiceovers and that's about it.
  • Dies Wide Open: Liesel's little brother, Werner, dies with his eyes open.
  • Disappeared Dad: Liesel has never met nor seen her biological father.
  • Don't Fear the Reaper: Death is compassionate towards humans, particularly the other main characters. He describes himself as cradling the souls of particularly vulnerable or sad people in his arms.
  • Driven to Suicide: Michael Holtzapfel, Frau Holtzapfel's other son, hangs himself out of survivor's guilt.
  • "Everybody Dies" Ending: By the end of the novel, all of the primary characters are dead. Most of them is thanks to the bombing on Himmel street.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: Liesel is the only one to survive the Himmel Street bombing thanks to being in the basement at the time.
  • First Kiss: Liesel shares her first kiss with Rudy after seeing his body being carted out of the rubble. She does it in the hopes that the kiss he'd been always dreaming of would wake him up.
  • For the Evulz: The only reason rich boy Viktor Chemmel steals from the farmers is because he thinks it's fun.
  • Gratuitous German: German words and phrases are sprinkled throughout the mainly English novel. It's mostly to remind the reader that the story is set in Germany and so the characters aren't really speaking in English.
  • Groin Attack: Liesel kicks Ludwig in the crotch during the beatdown she gives him. Rudy half-jokingly asks Liesel to "don't kick me in the eggs."
  • Happily Adopted: Liesel genuinely loves Hans and Rosa and considers them her parents.
  • He Is Not My Boyfriend: Liesel denies any romantic relationship between her and Rudy.
  • Held Gaze: In the movie, Rudy and Liesel hold each other's gazes at different points in order to create some Ship Tease.
  • Hero Antagonist: The British are unquestionably on the side of good guys, since they're fighting the Nazis and all, but they're still ultimately responsible for bombing Himmel Street into oblivion and killing everyone except Liesel (who got incredibly lucky).
  • Liesel goes into one after Himmel Street is bombed.
  • And before, Liesel has a minor breakdown after she sees Max being sent to the concentration camp in Dachau.
  • Hans does as well when he gives a Jewish man in the "parade" bread after he is whipped.
  • Honor Among Thieves: Arthur Berg and his apple-stealing troupe may steal from people who need food as much as they do, but they have a code of honor amongst themselves.
    Arthur (after Rudy and Liesel have stolen from Otto Sturm): We'll get the others. We might be criminals, but we're not totally immoral.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Werner was overcome by a violent coughing fit before his death.
  • Insult of Endearment: Rosa insults her husband and adoptive daughter nigh constantly, but there are times when her insults are clearly not meant to be insulting. It's a habit Liesel picks up and uses with Rudy.
  • Irony: The basement of Liesel's house was rejected as an air raid shelter due to its low ceiling but it was sufficient enough to shelter Liesel from the bombs that fell on Himmel Street, killing everybody but her.
  • I Should Write a Book About This: Liesel sets about writing a memoir about her experiences. She loses it during the aftermath of the Himmel Street bombing, but Death picks it up before anything can happen to it. When he meets Liesel at the end of her life, Death gives the memoir back to her.
  • Jerkass:
    • Viktor Chemmel will always give you the inexplicable urge to punch him in his smug face: he always refers to Liesel as a "whore", and hogs most of the spoils they worked to get while Viktor didn't lift a finger.
    • Franz Deutcher, Rudy's Hitler Youth leader who forces Rudy to run himself ragged and then fall into a pile of horse manure.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Rosa Hubermann really does love Liesel, but she doesn't quite know how to show it. Arthur Berg also counts, especially compared to his successor.
  • Karma Houdini: Both Franz Deutcher and Viktor Chemnel get off completely free for bullying Rudy and Liesel, and it's never mentioned whether they were killed in the bombing of Molching.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: Rudy in the movie
    Rudy: I lo-
  • Lemony Narrator: The entire thing is narrated by Death. He has quite a unique voice.
  • Lethal Chef: Rosa Hubermann's cooking is horrible.
  • The Masochism Tango: You really have to wonder what got Hans and Rosa Hubermann together in the first place.
  • Maybe Ever After: Liesel and Max might have gotten together at the end. Or not. In the film they remained close friends for the rest of their lives. Word of God from Markus Zusak is that he, personally, believes Liesel and Max don't get married - but he also emphasises that's just his opinion, and that every reader can have their own equally valid belief about how things turned out.
  • Meaningful Name: "Himmel" means heaven or sky in German. The movie went with the former, renaming it to Heaven Street. This is lampshaded by Death..
    "Nobody wanted to bomb a street named after Heaven."
  • Missing Mom: Liesel's mother. In the movie, it's said that she is a Communist, who's presumably been taken to a concentration camp with her children given to the Hubermanns.
  • Naïve Newcomer: Liesel.
  • Never Got to Say Goodbye: This happens to Liesel a lot. She never got to say goodbye to her mother, to Max Vandenburg, hell, to everyone on Himmel Street.
  • Never Learned to Read: Liesel first learns to read with the help of Hans and "The Grave Diggers' Handbook", the first book she stole at her brother's burial.
  • No Fourth Wall: Death frequently addresses the audience directly.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Again, do not call Liesel stupid.
  • Noodle Incident: The infamous Jesse Owens incident is mentioned a couple of times. Subverted in that later, Rudy tells Liesel about the incident in such detail that she can now picture it perfectly in her head.
  • Odd Friendship: Liesel and Max end up bonding over a number of things, including fists, trains, words, the weather, and their respective dead relatives.
  • Oh, and X Dies: Several times over.
  • Perpetual Poverty: Himmel Street isn't one of the better parts of town...
  • Please Wake Up: Liesel reacts this way when rescuers dig her out of the basement and she sees her friends and family's dead bodies. She then tries to wake up Rudy with a kiss.
  • The Power of Love: Subverted. When Liesel sees Rudy's dead body, she tries to wake him up by giving him the kiss he has always asked for. Not surprisingly, it was a gigantic Tear Jerker moment.
    • Even Markus Zusak himself has admitted to being a mess when he wrote that.
  • Product Placement: Near the end of the movie, an Apple Macintosh computer can be seen in Liesel's home.
  • Shameful Strip: Rudy and two other boys are made to do this by a doctor and a nurse to do things such as perform a naked "sieg heil". Zusak's description of the event makes the whole thing extremely awkward and uncomfortable.
  • Snicket Warning Label: Death warns at the beginning that the story doesn't have a happy ending.
  • Snow Means Death:
    • Liesel's little brother dies on the way to Himmel Street and is given a hasty burial in the snow.
    • Hans and Rosa's son is sent to Stalingrad, which inevitably invokes this trope.
    • So are Michael and Robert Holtzapfel. Robert dies, Michael returns home but hangs himself soon after.
  • Take That!: Death makes sure to step on the picture of Hitler that Frau Diller keeps framed when he's collecting everybody's souls.
  • True Companions: Arthur Berg's apple-stealing team. When he moves away, the new leader doesn't keep the group quite as close-knit.
  • True Love's Kiss: Subverted, in what is probably the saddest scene in the novel.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Liesel and Rudy's exchanges are frequently littered with insults, jabs, and a rather colorful assortment of German swear words.
  • War Is Hell