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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
I saw the book thief three times."
Death, from the prologue

Set in WWII-era Germany, The Book Thief tells the story of a twelve-year-old girl called Liesel Meminger, the eponymous book thief, living with her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. This book is entirely narrated from the perspective of Death—who has surprisingly witty and dry sense of humor (and uses beautiful metaphors a lot). Written by Markus Zusak. A film adaptation was released in 2013, starring Sophie Nélisse as Liesel and Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson as the Hubermanns.

Keep some tissues handy.


This work provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: What did you expect? The movie cut out some lesser elements from the book, and the main plotlines featured in the film were simplified. It also cut a few of the minor characters out. Most notably, Franz Deutscher had a much larger role in the film, becoming a compression of several minor characters.
  • Alliterative Name: Hans Hubermann.
  • Almost Kiss: Liesel to Rudy when they're celebrating his birthday in his father's shop.
    • A final time when they're in the forests together, after Liesel admits she told Max about Rudy.
  • The Atoner: Ilsa Hermann is a version of this, never lighting fires, always opening windows, constantly living in a cold, dreary house because of how her son froze to death.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Even though Hans and Rosa are locked in The Masochism Tango, Hans brings eggs back to Rosa and genuinely cares for her, while Rosa prayed for Hans' safety with his accordion every night when he was sent to war.
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  • Beige Prose: Several sections of Death's narration is this:
    Sister Maria.
    Was not impressed.
  • Berserk Button: DO NOT call Liesel stupid. She'll mess you up.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Himmel Street is bombed. Almost everybody except Liesel dies. Max lives through the concentration camp and comes back to Liesel, however and that Liesel herself lives a long and fulfilled life. She marries, has children, and dies happily in her Manhattan apartment. Death also returns her book of memoirs.
  • Blackface: Rudy, earlier in the book, as an homage to Jesse Owens. His father sets him straight. It should be noted that the issue here isn't that anyone's concerned about offending black people, it's that Rudy's a boy growing up in Nazi Germany and this kind of behavior could get him in serious trouble.
  • Book Burning: One is held in Molching. Liesel rescues The Shoulder Shrug from the pile of "objectionable materials" being burnt. (In the movie, it's The Invisible Man.)
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Liesel to Rudy. Just kiss him, already.
    • Rosa to Liesel in a parental love kind of way.
  • Casanova Wannabe: Rudy to Liesel. Yep, even as a kid. And lampshaded by our narrator:
    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. It saves her life when the bombing happens, because the basement shields her from the blows.
  • Chubby Mama, Skinny Papa: The Hubermanns. Hans is skinny and Rosa is stocky.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Rosa Hubermann is very prone to this. And Pfiffikus makes Rosa, in the book's own words, 'look like a saint and a wordsmith'.
  • Covers Always Lie: A lot of versions of the cover depict a scythe-wielding hooded Death. Y'know, exactly like how Death specified he DIDN'T look like?
  • Cranky Neighbor: The antagonistic Frau Holtzapfel, who detests Rosa Hubermann, and makes it a point to spit on their door handle. She gets friendlier after Liesel starts to read to her.
  • Curse of the Ancients: A meta example: taking place in the 1930s and 40s, the insults "Saukerl" and "Saumensch" get thrown around a lot, terms that have largely become obsolete in modern-day German.
  • Daddy's Girl: Liesel, after the adoption.
  • Demoted to Extra: Death, who's the book's narrator, only has a few voiceovers through the film (the beginning, the end, and a few Time Skips).
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Because Rudy dies before Liesel can return his feelings.
  • Dies Wide Open: Liesel's little brother, Werner dies this way.
  • Disappeared Dad: Liesel has never met or seen her biological father.
  • Don't Fear the Reaper: Death, the narrator, is amusing, non-linear and rather compassionate towards humans, particularly the other main characters. He even describes cradling the souls of particularly vulnerable or sad people, like children or the Jews killed in the death camps, in his arms. Given that it's a book about World War II, the "amusing" part takes a sharp turn. The death camp scenes, unsurprisingly, are particularly bad.
  • Driven to Suicide: Michael Holtzapfel.
  • Dumb Blonde: Played with with Rudy Steiner. He isn't exactly an idiot, but with the way he acts, it's hard to tell at times, so he kind of falls in Genius Ditz territory as well.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: Liesel is the only one to survive when Himmel Street is bombed.
  • First Kiss: A sad example here: Liesel and Rudy have their first kiss when she sees Rudy's body being carted out of the rubble and hopes to wake him up with the kiss he's been always dreaming of.
  • For the Evulz: Basically why Viktor Chemmel steals from farmers, even though he's a well-provided for rich boy.
  • Foregone Conclusion: About half way through the book, Death accidentally spoils that Rudy dies because he is bad at mystery. It's still a Tear Jerker.
  • Gratuitous German: The characters often use German words and such, maybe to remind us that they aren't really speaking English.
  • The Grim Reaper: Subverted. At one point, Death even lampshades this trope by telling us how amusing the whole 'grim reaper with scythe and cloak' thing is.
  • Groin Attack: Liesel gives one to Ludwig Schmeikl. Also Rudy's thought: "Just 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: Hans prompts Liesel to say this about Rudy.
  • Held Gaze: In the movie adaption, this happens between Liesel and Max and Rudy and Liesel to create some Ship Tease.
  • Hero Antagonist: The British. Unquestionably the 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.
  • Heroic BSoD: 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.
    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: Sort of. It's not explained why Werner died (it's hinted he was ill) but right before he did so he was overcome by a violent coughing fit.
  • Insult of Endearment: Absolutely everywhere.
  • Irony: The basement of Liesel's house was rejected as an air raid shelter due to its low ceiling but it was sufficient to shelter Liesel from the bombs that fell on Himmel Street, killing everybody but her.
  • I Should Write a Book About This: Liesel ends up writing a memoir about her experiences. Then, Death picks it up, which is how we get the story. When he meets Liesel at the end of her life, he gives the memoir back to her.
  • Jerkass: Viktor Chemmel will always give you the inexplicable urge to punch him in his smug face.
    • Also Franz Deutcher, Rudy's Hitler Youth leader.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Rosa Hubermann. The narration itself states that she really does love Liesel, but she doesn't quite know how to show it. Arthur Berg also counts, especially compared to his successor. Death is more of a Deadpan Snarker with a heart of gold.
  • Jew In My Basement
  • 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.
  • Kid-anova: Rudy.
  • Kill 'Em All!: Almost the entire cast in one scene, giving us quite the Downer Ending.
  • 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 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


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