The Book Thief by Zusak: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:04 Background
  • 0:42 Book Summary
  • 2:16 Book Analysis
  • 3:45 Death as the Narrator
  • 4:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

In this lesson, we'll briefly review 'The Book Thief' by Markus Zusak. We'll also explore some of the themes of the book, such as kindness and cruelty, duality, and the importance of words.


Has a story ever struck a nerve in you? Introduced a new concept or insight that forever changed your idea of reality or human nature? Markus Zusak was so affected by a story that he wrote a whole novel from it.

Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief, was inspired by an eye-witness account his mother had told him when he was growing up: as Jews were being marched down the street by Nazis, a boy offered a struggling old man a piece of bread. In response, the German soldiers took away the bread and whipped the man and the boy. Zusak saw this as the ultimate symbol of the difference between kindness and cruelty, and it became a repeating theme in his novel. Let's find out more.

Book Summary

The Book Thief is about a young girl, Liesel, growing up in Germany amidst World War II. Liesel is living with foster parents, Hans and Rosa. Throughout the story, Liesel steals many books. At first, she doesn't even know how to read, but she knows that the book is important. Hans notices and teaches her how to make sense of the letters.

Hans and Rosa are not Jewish, but they do not agree with the Nazi regime and privately fight against it by hiding a Jewish boy, Max, in their basement. Their anti-Nazi sentiments remain a secret until one day Hans helps a Jew who is struggling to keep up with the group as they're being marched to a concentration camp. In response, the soldiers whip both Hans and the man he helped.

Hans is worried that this incident will draw suspicion to his family and that Max is no longer safe in his basement, so he sends him away. After Max leaves, Liesel is given a book he made her, 'The Word Shaker,' which he wrote about their friendship and a promise that they will be reunited. Hans is then drafted into the German army where he ends up breaking his leg and is sent home to recuperate.

Unfortunately, Max was not able to escape the Nazis, and Liesel sees him being marched through town one day on his way to the concentration camp. As the war continues, Liesel is given a blank notebook to write her story in. She names it 'The Book Thief.'

One day her neighborhood is bombed, and Hans, Rosa, and her friend Rudy are all killed. In the rubble, Liesel leaves her book behind. After the war ends and the Jews are freed, Max goes back to find Liesel, and they are happily reunited. The book ends with Liesel moving to Australia, having a family, and living to a ripe old age.

Book Analysis

There are many themes in The Book Thief, including the power of words, the disparity between the kindness and cruelty of humans, and duality.

Books are an important part of this story, and therefore, words hold great value. In the book that Max wrote for Liesel, 'The Word Shaker,' he suggests that words are the most powerful force on Earth. He even says that Hitler used words, not guns, to take over the world.

To Liesel, words also offer comfort and a means of escape. They're a place of refuge while the Nazis control her world. She even uses these books to calm her neighbors by reading to them during bomb raids.

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