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.