Death introduces himself as the narrator of the book. He describes his work and his preference for a chocolate brown sky when he collects people’s souls. He lists the main elements of the story to come, and reveals that he has seen the main character, the book thief, three times. The first time he saw her was on a train where he had come to collect the soul of a small boy. The book thief watched him take the boy with tears frozen to her face. The next time Death saw the book thief was years later, when a pilot had crashed his plane. Death arrived for the pilot’s soul and watched as a boy took a teddy bear from a toolbox and gave it to the pilot. The third time he saw the book thief, a German town had been bombed. The book thief was sitting on a pile of rubble, holding a book. Death followed the book thief for a while, and when she dropped her book, he picked it up. The book thief is nine-year-old Liesel Meminger. She and her younger brother, Werner, are traveling by train with their mother towards Munich, where they will live with a foster family. As the book thief dreams of Adolph Hitler, Werner dies suddenly.
Liesel and her mother get off the train with Werner’s body at the next station and bury him in the town. One of the gravediggers drops a book, and Liesel, who has been digging in the snow, picks it up. Liesel and her mother continue on to Munich, then to a suburb called Molching. Liesel’s new foster parents live on Himmel Street, in Molching. Himmel translates as heaven, though the town is neither hellish nor heavenly. Liesel meets her new foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Because her mother is sick and her father has been taken away for being a Communist, Liesel understands that the Hubermanns represent a form of salvation for her, but at first she is very wary of them, especially Frau Hubermann, who calls Liesel saumench, meaning “pig girl.” Liesel’s stepfather, Hans, is a housepainter who wins her over by teaching her how to roll cigarettes for him and playing his accordion for her. After a few weeks, Frau Hubermann instructs Liesel to call her and her husband Mama and Papa. Liesel complies.
From the beginning of her time with the Hubermanns, Liesel is plagued by nightmares of her dead brother. Often she wakes up screaming, and Papa comforts her. During the day, Liesel attends school, where she is forced to study with the younger children because she is behind in her education. In February, Liesel turns ten, and is given a damaged doll by the Hubermanns. She also receives a brown uniform, and is enrolled in the Hitler Youth, where she learns to ‘heil Hitler,’ or salute Hitler, as well as marching, sewing, and rolling bandages. Mama begins taking Liesel along with her when she collects washing from the neighbors in Molching, and soon Liesel is making the deliveries herself. Liesel begins meeting her neighbors on Himmel Street, including her next door neighbor Rudy Steiner. Rudy is obsessed with the African-American track star Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Prior to Liesel’s arrival on Himmel Street, Rudy covered himself with charcoal and ran laps around the local track, and as a result the neighbors think he’s a bit crazy. Though Rudy and Liesel initially argue over a soccer game, they soon become best friends. Smitten with Liesel, Rudy suggests they race, and if he wins, he gets a kiss. They both fall in the mud as they run though and Liesel refuses to kiss him.
One night, following a demonstration by members of the Nazi Party, Liesel has another nightmare about her brother and wets the bed. When Papa comes to change the sheets, he finds the book Liesel stole from the gravedigger who buried her brother. The book is called “The Grave Digger’s Handbook.” When Papa discovers Liesel can barely read, he begins teaching her the alphabet by writing on the back of a piece of sandpaper. The lessons progress, and Papa begins taking Liesel with him during the day to study by the river. In September, Hitler invades Poland and Liesel tries to read in front of her class at school, but ends up reciting from “The Grave Digger’s Handbook” instead. When her classmate Ludwig Schmeikl taunts her in the schoolyard, she beats him up, then beats up another classmate, Tommy Müller, because she thinks he’s laughing at her. Overcome with sadness about her failed reading attempt, the death of her brother, and everything that has happened in the past few months, Liesel breaks down, and Rudy comforts her.
With Death as the unconventional, omniscient narrator of The Book Thief, the novel immediately establishes that the story will mix elements of fantasy with historical fact. Rather than being stereotypically grim or creepy, Death presents himself as sensitive to color and light, and rather regretful about his unfortunate line of work. He has feelings for the souls he collects, and the humans left behind. Liesel, in particular, has made such a strong impression on him that he can’t forget the three times he saw her. By foreshadowing the times he saw Liesel, Death sets up the structure of the narrative, organized around three major events in Liesel’s life, and also creates a sense of inevitability, or predestination, for what follows. Although Death is presented as a singular, almost-human narrator, he is all-knowing and all-seeing, which will enable him to describe scenes and emotions he wouldn’t have knowledge of were he a more conventional narrator, while at the same time giving him a distinct personality and point of view.
In contrast to Death, Liesel’s understanding of her situation is limited to that of a nine-year-old girl. Accordingly, the reader may even at this early point understand more of what is happening than Liesel does. For example, Liesel is not sure what happened to her biological father, but because of the hints given in the text that he was a Communist, and because of what we know of Hitler’s policies in Germany during the early 1930s, it seems likely Liesel’s father was sent to a concentration camp. This is just one example of the dramatic irony author Markus Zusak uses throughout The Book Thief, where the reader has a greater understanding of a situation than the characters often do, in large part because the reader has the benefit of seeing events from Death’s nearly omniscient point of view.
As a character, Liesel is precociously empathetic to the adults around her, though she tries to avoid dealing with her own complicated emotions. Of the adults she encounters, she is especially drawn to her foster father Hans Hubermann, whom she immediately understands is “worth a lot.” She finds her foster mother, Rosa, more difficult to embrace, but she sees hints that Rosa is a more complicated and generous character than she initially seems. Rosa angrily tells the neighbors to mind their own business when Liesel arrives, but she also hugs Liesel when Liesel finally takes a bath. Although Liesel has an intuitive understanding of the people in her life, Liesel is less reflective about her own feelings and circumstance. The fact that she has nightmares about her dead brother shows that she is troubled by his death and the disappearance of her mother, but she rarely thinks about these occurrences during the day. She prefers to repress her feelings and tries to focus on other things instead. Clearly these events are still too immediate and painful for her to feel she’s ready to confront them.
Although the early sections start dramatically, with the death of Liesel’s brother and her arrival in Molching, the majority of these chapters are devoted to introducing and developing the main characters in the book and creating a portrait of a typical German suburb. While some back story is provided for each character, more significant is the foreshadowing of actions and themes that will be developed over the rest of the book. Rudy, we learn, will develop a passionate crush on Liesel that will be a source of both strength and frustration for her. Hans will be a singularly positive influence in Liesel’s life, but his inability to go along with the regime will cause friction for him. Rosa will be a more ambiguous character, and will serve as a voice of caution and pragmatism in contrast to some of the more romantic, impractical characters. And Liesel will develop strength from finding her own voice.
These early sections also introduce Germany as a country on the brink of a world war. Again, there is a dramatic irony in that the reader knows the gravity of the political situation that’s developing, whereas the characters in the novel have little sense of the destruction that awaits them. The characters’ reactions to Hitler’s policies range a great deal. Candy store owner Frau Diller enthusiastically embraces Nazism, demanding everyone in her store give the requisite “heil Hitler” before they are able to shop there. Rudy’s father, Alex Steiner’s, displays a more passive acceptance of the political situation. Lastly, Hans Hubermann subtly resists the new regime. By showing a range of responses, Zusak establishes a theme he will elaborate on throughout the book, as characters forced to choose between openly resisting anti-Semitic and inhumane policies and protecting their own families and themselves turn increasingly cruel or kind.
Additionally, this section introduces the theme of the power of words, which is the central theme of the book. Though Liesel begins the chapter unable to read, and at the mercy of the incomprehensibility of the written word, by the end she is becoming a competent reader, and beginning to grasp the power words wield. Liesel’s relationship with language is contrasted with Hitler’s ability to manipulate language to seize power and incite fear and paranoia in the populace. Throughout the book, Zusak will highlight words and phrases that are significant to the story, and interrupt the narrative to translate German expressions Liesel hears. Words, we will see, can be used for both liberation and imprisonment.