The Book Thief | Study Guide

Marcus Zusak

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The Book Thief | Part 1, Chapters 5–8 : the grave digger's handbook | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 5: The Jesse Owens Incident

In a flashback to the 1936 Olympics, Rudy, who idolizes Jesse Owens, darkens his skin with charcoal, sneaks out of the house at night, and runs the 100 meters, the idol of imaginary crowds. Mr. Steiner catches Rudy and tries to explain that in Nazi Germany it is safer to be blond-haired and blue-eyed. The narrator explains that although Rudy's father is a member of the Nazi Party, he doesn't hate anyone or take much interest in Nazi politics; he is merely trying to survive and feed his family. He doesn't want to do anything to upset the people in charge and clearly sees the advantages party membership brings him.

Chapter 6: The Other Side of Sandpaper

The narrator explains that Hans Hubermann does not support the Nazis, although he is in the minority. Death says there is a reason for Hans's decision but offers no further details.

Liesel has a defining moment. One night she wets the bed during her nightmare of Nazis leading her to a train. Hans helps her change the sheets and finds her book. He asks if she wants to read it, and she does. Her knowledge of words is so limited that instead they begin late-night lessons with the alphabet.

Chapter 7: The Smell of Friendship

Hans continues to help Liesel at night but also teaches her during the day. Sometimes they practice outside on a road that leads to the concentration camp at Dachau. Mostly, though, they end up in the basement. Liesel learns to read and write by spelling words on the wall in paint. Rosa tells Hans he smells of cigarettes and kerosene.

Chapter 8: The Heavyweight Champion of the School-Yard

World War II begins in September. Disruptive in her lower-grade class, and whipped for her behavior, Liesel is moved ahead to her appropriate grade, even though her reading is still not as advanced as her classmates'. After she can't complete an oral reading test, a boy in her class teases her, and she beats him up. Her teachers are horrified, and she gets another whipping from the teacher, but Rudy supports her.

Analysis

Jesse Owens was a star on the 1936 United States Olympic Track and Field team, which competed in Berlin. Owens won four gold medals and set or tied nine Olympic records and three world records. His victories greatly upset Hitler, who expected Germans to win because of their supposed racial superiority, and was dismayed when Owens, an African American, outclassed the Aryans. Any young athlete might look up to Jesse Owens, but in Nazi Germany it was a dangerous choice to make.

By 1939 the Nazis were the only political party allowed to exist in Germany. To advance in their careers, people had to join the party, or at least were strongly advised to do so. In Part 1 readers are introduced to an enthusiastic Nazi, Frau Diller; an unenthusiastic party member who joined to stay out of trouble, Mr. Steiner; and a nonmember, Hans Hubermann. Zusak wants readers to have a nuanced understanding of the Nazi Party; Rudy's father is treated in a sympathetic way as someone who joins only to help his family and doesn't subscribe to the party agenda. Zusak also shows the influence of Nazi propaganda: Herr Steiner doesn't exactly dislike the Jews personally or individually, but he does believe, in accordance with what he has been hearing—both by widespread propaganda and anti-Semitic laws—they could well hurt his business.

Near Munich, the fictional town of Molching is also near the Dachau concentration camp, initially used for political prisoners, such as Communists, and where Liesel's birth parents may have been sent. Zusak never explores what the people of Molching think about Dachau; their thoughts and sentiments remain ambiguous, as they did in reality. Although many people later questioned what the average German knew about the concentration camps, no clear answer emerges except most people feared them, but accepted the Nazi claim they were necessary, just as Alex Steiner accepts the Nazi idea of Jews as a threat.

In an instance of situational irony Liesel, the book thief, cannot read at the beginning of her story. She stole her first book, not to read it, but as a memento of her brother's funeral. However, despite her struggles, she is determined to learn to read. She practices with Hans at night, either outside or in the basement, learning her letters and then words. But her new skill fails her when she needs it most: at school.

The book itself is symbolic of Liesel's situation. It is a tangible link to her dead brother and absent mother. That it is a handbook for grave diggers symbolizes its connection to the omnipresence of Death. And as it is a symbol of death, it is also a symbol of life; what is inside the book—words—means new life for Liesel. The book is described as black with silver words, which sounds elaborate and almost magical. The content is dry and boring, with many unfamiliar words, and the subject is depressing. Yet Liesel reads the book until she has it memorized. In that sense it is magic, because it leads Liesel into the world of books and words.

Zusak again uses typography for emphasis. Important events are in headline format, and significant ideas and descriptions are one-phrase or one-sentence paragraphs.

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