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.