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The Book Thief | Study Guide

Marcus Zusak

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The Book Thief | Prologue, Chapters 1–3 : a mountain range of rubble | Summary

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The Book Thief has a prologue and an epilogue, both of which have titles—all listed in lowercase letters—and four named chapters each. The novel is then divided into 10 named parts, each of which has eight named chapters. In this study guide, chapters within each part are grouped by fours for the purpose of summary and analysis.

There are also several German terms used throughout the text:

  • Frau means "Mrs."
  • Führer means "leader" and was the honorific given to Adolf Hitler as leader of Germany.
  • Heil Hitler (meaning "Hail Hitler"), accompanied by a Nazi salute, became the accepted way to say hello and goodbye.
  • Herr means "Mr."

Summary

Chapter 1: Death and Chocolate

Death introduces himself, describing what happens when he takes a soul. He indicates people usually notice a color when he arrives, and he, personally, is partial to a chocolate-colored sky. What troubles him especially about taking a soul is the "leftover humans." Although he tries to ignore them, sometimes he cannot. Death says he has seen the book thief three times and then introduces the main parts of the story: "A girl, Some words, An accordionist, Some fanatical Germans, A Jewish fist fighter, And quite a lot of thievery."

Chapter 2: Beside the Railway Line

Death sees the book thief for the first time beside a railway line on a freezing day, the ground covered by frost, white being a color of death. She is accompanied by a mother and young boy, whom Death visited on the train. The daughter is crying, tears frozen to her face. Death gets curious about the girl and stays to watch for a little while.

Chapter 3: The Eclipse

Death, arriving in black, sees the book thief years later when he comes for the soul of a young man in an airplane crash. Amidst the wreckage a boy arrives moments before the pilot dies, takes out a toolbox and teddy bear, and the book thief arrives a moment later. Death sees the loss of a soul as an eclipse.

Chapter 4: The Flag

The last time Death sees the book thief, the color is red, as many people have died in a bombing. She survives, clinging to a book. Death wants to apologize to the girl, but cannot. When she drops her book in grief, he picks it up and carries it with him. Death says it is one of many stories told to justify human existence to Death. He offers to share the story with the reader. The white, black, and red form the Nazi flag.

Analysis

The prologue introduces Death, the narrator. An ambiguous character, Death is not human but possesses some human characteristics. Death refers to his heart and his breath, but at the same time, he classifies humans as something different from himself. However, unlike the more common conceptions of Death, here he is humorous, even sympathetic, and somewhat apologetic for his work, as he shows concern for those he visits personally and those he leaves behind. His dominant quality, however, is weariness; he has seen so much and seeks distraction as well as a justification for human existence. Humans puzzle and intrigue him. Death seems quite comfortable with words.

The prologue also introduces headlines, a device Zusak uses throughout the story. Death frequently uses direct address to speak to the reader. However, certain statements are set off in bold print, centered, and appear under a heading. For example, on the first page of the prologue Zusak creates this headline:

*** HERE IS A SMALL FACT ***
You are going to die.

Some of these typographical manipulations, such as centering, boldface, and capitalization call readers' attention to a detail related to one of the book's themes. Others provide quick snapshots of a character, place, or moment. Because Liesel's story is in large part about the power of words, Zusak takes advantage of the author's power to manipulate not only the words themselves but the way they appear—visually—on the page.

Death does not tell this story sequentially. The prologue jumps through the book thief's story, or the three times Death sees Liesel—one from its beginning, one later on, and one from its end—thus foreshadowing three significant events in her life. Death gives previews of the future, but only images. Readers do not know why the book thief fascinates Death, but they will find out.

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