Literature Study GuidesThe Book ThiefPart 1 Chapters 1 4 Summary

The Book Thief | Study Guide

Marcus Zusak

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The Book Thief | Part 1, Chapters 1–4 : the grave digger's handbook | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1: Arrival on Himmel Street

Part 1 is called "the grave digger's handbook" after the first book Liesel steals. In this first chapter nine-year-old Liesel Meminger, known as the book thief, is on a train with her mother and six-year-old brother Werner, heading for the town of Molching, near Munich, to stay with a foster family. As Liesel is dreaming of Adolf Hitler, Werner dies suddenly on the train. The narrator, Death, watches Liesel's reaction to her brother's death. Knowing to stay away from Liesel but interested in her, Death attends the makeshift funeral and burial in the next town. At first Liesel has no reaction, but after the funeral she attempts to dig up the body with her bare hands. When she stops, she notices a book lying in the snow and she takes it, even though she cannot read.

Liesel is placed with a foster family, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, who live on Himmel Street in Molching. Frightened and sad, Liesel refuses to come out of the car, but Hans, gentler than his wife, coaxes her inside. No one knows she has the stolen book, The Grave Digger's Handbook, in her suitcase.

Chapter 2: Growing Up a Saumensch

At the Hubermanns' Liesel is confused about her situation, feeling abandoned by her mother and not understanding the meaning of Communist, as it has pertained to her family's life. Rosa swears constantly and insults everyone. Hans, however, soothes Liesel by teaching her to roll cigarettes. A World War I veteran, Hans is a painter who loves to smoke and play the accordion. Rosa, a short, square-looking woman and terrible cook, earns money by doing laundry for wealthier families. She has a gruff exterior but does love her husband and Liesel, requesting that her foster daughter call her Mama.

Chapter 3: The Woman with the Iron Fist

Liesel has nightmares every night about her brother. Hans always comes in to comfort her. During the day Liesel feels safer because she cannot dream. Because she cannot read, Liesel struggles in school, and she is placed with younger children. She remains fascinated by the "stolen" book because it reminds her of the last time she saw her brother and mother.

Hans works nights, playing the accordion. Rosa makes Liesel help her with the laundry. Rosa complains about her customers, including the mayor's wife. Although Hans and Rosa have little money, Liesel gets two presents for her 10th birthday: a broken doll and her BDM uniform for the girls' Hitler Youth program.

Chapter 4: The Kiss (A Childhood Decision Maker)

Liesel meets the neighborhood kids, particularly Tommy Müller and Rudy Steiner. Having had health problems requiring multiple operations, Tommy twitches and is partially deaf. Blond-haired, blue-eyed Rudy admires Jesse Owens. Rudy, a self-professed ladies' man and Liesel begin as adversaries during a soccer game but soon become close friends. Rudy offers to race Liesel with a kiss as his prize if he wins. Both fall down and call it a draw, but Rudy still wants his kiss.

Rudy shows Liesel some of the neighborhood sights, including Frau Diller's shop. An ardent Nazi, Frau Diller will not serve customers unless they offer the approved greeting of "Heil Hitler." Rudy also shows Liesel the "road of yellow stars," the Jewish part of Molching, in which houses have broken windows and yellow stars painted on the doors. Liesel also meets Pfiffikus, the foul-mouthed old man.

Analysis

These chapters ground the reader in Liesel's world: Nazi Germany. Zusak has said he wanted this book to show a Germany that existed beyond propaganda films and newsreels. Therefore, readers meet ardent Nazis but also see many others who are not. The "road of yellow stars" is presented without much explanation. Indeed, for many German children of the time persecution of the Jews was a fact, nothing to cause concern or to question, nothing to disapprove or approve. However, the narrator describes the street's inhabitants as "not humans, but shapes, moving about beneath the lead-colored clouds," thus foreshadowing their fates. Liesel would have been three years old when Hitler came to power. So for her the Nazis have been there as long as she can remember, and she knows nothing different.

The Nazis and their ideologies became part of all aspects of German life, including childhood, creating special programs to train young boys and girls to grow up to be "good" Nazis. The Hitler Youth and the BDM (League of German Girls) were after-school programs promoting the Nazi ideals of good citizenship, athletics, and healthy living, glorifying the Aryans and denigrated the Jews. Hitler Youth trained young men to join the German army, and the BDM developed young women to become ideal Nazi wives and mothers. Students participated in the programs from ages 10 to 17, then graduated into adult Nazi Party membership.

The reader learns little about Liesel's life before Himmel Street, its name revealing none of its character—neither heavenly nor hellish, merely a poor section of town with small boxy houses and shared outhouses. The implication is that her father is a Communist, a dangerous affiliation in Nazi Germany; her mother may be one as well. It is understood Liesel must live with foster parents for her own safety. However, by Nazi standards Rosa and Hans are odd choices for a foster family. In Nazi Germany the man should be dominant and aggressive, the woman obedient and feminine. Hans and Rosa are almost direct opposites, at least on the surface. Rosa is loud, sharp, crude, and ill-tempered; Hans is quiet, artistic, peaceful, and gentle. However, as the story continues readers will see them differently as other aspects of their characters emerge.

Liesel may be something of a misfit at this point, as are her new friends. She is a displaced child living with strangers, she cannot read or write, and she must attend school with much younger children. Although Rudy seems like the picture-perfect Aryan boy, a Nazi poster child perhaps, he idolizes the African American athlete Jesse Owens, whose gold medals at the 1936 Munich Olympics caused Hitler and the Nazis considerable embarrassment and anger. Nor is he someone who can be led, for he is too much of an individual to follow orders and accept others' beliefs. And he is basically kind and generous. In addition, Tommy's twitching and deafness could easily land him in a concentration camp; the Nazis often killed or sterilized those they considered "defective," and Tommy's condition makes him just that.

In Chapter 4 Rudy asks Liesel for a kiss as a prize if he wins the race. This is the first of several times he will ask Liesel to kiss him, but either she refuses or the moment passes. However, his words to her, "One day ... you'll be dying to kiss me," foreshadow the circumstances in which Liesel does kiss Rudy at the end of the book.

As he does throughout the book, Zusak manipulates words and typography to create emphasis and provide readers with information that otherwise would be cumbersome to read in traditional text. At the beginning of this first part of the book, he introduces characters as a playwright would, providing a list of characters. He uses German expressions and translates them to help readers sense what Liesel actually heard around her and to delineate characters in their natural environment. And he places character descriptions in a snapshot format for emphasis.

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