Summary Part One : The Grave Digger's Handbook
Summary of “Arrival on Himmel Street”
Death describes the death of Liesel's little six-year-old brother Werner on the train to Munich. Her mother is taking her two children to foster parents in the nearby town of Molching (Olching, Germany). The boy dies suddenly, coughing, and when the train stops, the mother and his nine-year-old sister take the body and lay it in the snow by the train. The officials decide the body must be taken to the next town and buried. At the burial, a book falls from the pocket of the grave digger, The Grave Digger's Handbook. It is Liesel's first theft.
The mother and daughter are starving, apparent from their thin bodies and sores on their lips. The destination is the foster home of Rosa and Hans Hubermann who live on Himmel Street in Molching, a poor district. It takes Hans fifteen minutes to pry the weeping Liesel out of the car driven by someone from the foster agency and get her into the house.
Commentary on “Arrival at Himmel Street”
Death narrates the story crisply, without a lot of emotion as though he has been an eye witness, though he is retelling the story from Liesel's autobiography. The emotion is implied in the vivid details he highlights and interprets for us. Liesel is in a state of trauma, having lost her brother and mother in a few days and having to adjust to a strange home. The theft of the book at her brother's grave becomes the first of many book thefts that demonstrate her spirit of survival. When she takes this first book, she cannot even read, and when she does learn to read it, she reads it many times since she does not have other books. It could not be interesting to a child, but it does concern a topic she is already familiar with: death and loss.
Summary of “Growing up a Saumensch”
Liesel eventually owned fourteen books, six of which she stole. Liesel was a foster child because her parents were communists in Nazi Germany. She did not know what the word meant. Her mother was starving and sick. Now she feels alone and abandoned, living with strangers. The Hubermanns have a house with a basement and a shared outhouse with the neighbors. Rosa Hubermann has a good heart but is nagging and unpleasant. She calls everyone a Saumensch (female pig), Saukerl (male pig) or Arschloch (asshole). Rosa is always furious. Hans is the kind one and becomes Liesel's savior. He rolls his own cigarettes, is a house painter, and plays the accordion for extra money in the bars. He is older, having survived as a soldier from World War I. The Hubermanns have two grown children who are not living at home. They are poor and are trying to make extra money from the government by taking in foster children. Rosa is angry when she finds the little boy died, for it is less money for them. Liesel has to call them Mama and Papa.
Commentary on “Growing up a Saumensch”
Rosa loves Liesel but is constantly shouting abuse and beating her with a wooden spoon. She never calls Liesel by her name but always “Saumensch” or female pig, a swear word. Liesel is in for a rough life as an orphan girl in Nazi Germany, except that her foster parents love and protect her, especially Hans, who is kindness personified. Since this is a young-adult book, it has some comforting messages within the scenes of violence and despair, related to the love of people for one another, even in the worst of times. If Liesel had to lose her family, at least she found the Hubermanns, who do their best for her.
Summary of “The Woman With the Iron Fist”
The first months are the hardest for Liesel. She has nightmares about her brother and sees visions of his dead face. Hans comes in every night to her bedroom to sit with her and to hold her until she is calm. She learns to trust him because of “the brute strength of the man's gentleness, his thereness” (p. 36). In her terror of being left, she understands Hans will never leave her. He falls asleep in the chair next to her bed. Sometimes he plays his accordion for her so she will sleep. For her, the sound of the accordion means safety. She hides The Gravedigger's Handbook under the mattress.
Because she cannot read or write, Liesel has a hard time in school. Hans and Rosa are not educated, but Hans is able to help Liesel learn to read in what they call their midnight class when she cannot sleep. The Hubermanns's two children are Hans Junior who works in Munich, and Trudy, who is a maid and nanny.
Liesel has to join a Hitler Youth Group, the BDM, or Band of German Girls, and wear a uniform. There she learns sewing and to say “heil Hitler!” Rosa Hubermann does laundry and ironing for richer people in town, and Liesel goes with her to deliver the clean clothes. Rosa swears at everyone and complains constantly. When they get to the mayor's grand house, the mayor's crazy wife answers. She is in a bathrobe and has messy hair. The next door neighbor, Frau Holtzapfel, spits on the Hubermanns's door every day when she passes because she feuds with Rosa. Her two sons are in the war.
Commentary on “The Woman With the Iron Fist”
The reader is given a tour of the town and Rosa's feisty character. The mayor's wife will become an important figure. The author shows the extent of Liesel's continuing trauma by making nightmare into a verb. Every night Liesel “nightmares.” Every night, Hans sits with her until she is calm. He is the reason she can heal and go on. His quiet and humble love is the biggest force in the book, next to Liesel's own courage.
Summary of “The Kiss (A Childhood Decision Maker)”
Other characters on Himmel Street are introduced. Rudy Steiner, the boy next door, becomes Liesel's best friend. Frau Diller is the pro-Nazi shop owner. The Jewish shops have been destroyed and have yellow stars of David painted on them. Rudy's father runs a clothing store. Tommy Müller is a boy with chronic ear infections and cannot hear very well. The Steiners have six children, and Rudy is always hungry. The children play soccer outside in all kinds of weather; Liesel is accepted as the only girl player.
Rudy is thought of as a little crazy because of an incident where he painted himself black and ran 100 meters pretending he was the black American athlete, Jesse Owens. At school the children make fun of Liesel because she cannot read and has to sit with the little children. Rudy befriends her and stands up for Liesel. He challenges her to a run, saying if he wins, he gets to kiss her. It is a draw, and Liesel vows Rudy will never kiss her.
Commentary on ““The Kiss (A Childhood Decision Maker)”
Zusak's parents were German citizens during the war, and he heard stories about their lives as he grew up in Sydney, Australia. In this book, he wants to bring out how the average German citizen suffered under Hitler, as well as the Jews. The destroyed German shops refer to the infamous Kristallnacht (Night of Crystal) when the Nazis broke the windows of all the synagogues and Jewish shops in Germany. The author also refers to the social undesirables who were subject to concentration camps: rebels, communists, foreigners, gypsies, and homosexuals. Liesel has to come to terms with the fact that she will never see her parents again. They are either in concentration camps or dead because they are communists. Himmel Street contains ordinary lower-class Germans like the Hubermanns who know and care nothing for politics. They are just trying to stay alive. These poor Germans suffer and die because of Hitler's war.
The book, besides introducing this difficult period of history, is also charming because the adventures of Rudy and Liesel are the universal ones of childhood and could be lived anywhere. They are in Hitler Youth Groups but are not really Nazi kids. They manage to have fun, no matter what is going on. Rudy is always hungry and never gets enough food, but he never misses a soccer game. Like other boys, he would like to have a girlfriend he can kiss. Liesel is not old enough to be interested in kissing. She is a tomboy.
Summary of “The Jesse Owens Incident”
During the 1936 Olympics in Hitler's Germany, Jesse Owens won four gold medals. Hitler, the arch racist, refused to shake his hand on the grounds he was black. Despite this, the German people were impressed with Owens, and Rudy had smeared charcoal all over himself pretending to be the black athlete. Liesel imagines she was there in the audience watching Rudy perform that night he ran the Owens race on the local track. It was actually Rudy's father who saw him and tried to talk sense into him. Mr. Steiner is a member of the Nazi party, he explains, and Rudy would be taken away for such an act. Rudy does not understand, for Owens is his hero.
Commentary on “The Jesse Owens Incident”
Mr. Steiner is afraid for the family and for his son for not behaving with Nazi prejudice. His difficulty explaining racist politics to Rudy shows its irrationality. Rudy insists he wants to be like Jesse Owens.
Summary of “The Other Side of Sandpaper”
The Nazis march down Munich Street singing “Deutschland uber Alles,” (Germany Over All) the Nazi anthem. Hans Hubermann only pretends to join in. The narrator points out that 90 percent of Germans showed support for the Nazis, leaving 10 percent who did not. Hans was part of the 10 percent. Liesel dreams that night that the brownshirted Nazis lead her to the train and her brother's death. She wets the bed and screams. Papa comes and holds her close. He helps her change the sheets. He finds the hidden book, The Gravedigger's Handbook. That begins her midnight lessons in reading with Papa. He makes an alphabet for her on pieces of sandpaper, with crude drawings for illustrations.
Commentary on “The Other Side of Sandpaper”
The author shows how many Germans had to suppress their feelings about the Nazis to survive. Hans is a good person and hates the Nazis, as Liesel does, for even at her age, she understands the Nazis have killed her family. Hans's kindness to Liesel saves her life, both physically and emotionally. He empowers her by helping her to read, though the book that becomes her primer seems unsuitable. She needs to read that particular book, however, because it was there at her brother's death and helps her to assimilate that experience.
Summary of “The Smell of Friendship”
The midnight class always starts when Liesel has a nightmare. Hans even extends the class into the daytime. They take the book, the accordion, and the washing to deliver to customers. They stop by the Amper river that flows towards Dachau, the concentration camp not far from the town. In bad days, they go to the basement for reading lessons. In the basement, they paint words she is learning on the wall.
Commentary on “The Smell of Friendship”
Liesel is healing with Hans's care. The fact is mentioned that the town is near the concentration camp of Dachau where the townspeople often see Jews on their way there. Dachau was the first camp in Nazi Germany for political prisoners, established in 1933. It was a forced labor camp for munitions. It held Jews, gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, Poles, communists, Russian prisoners of war, and other ethnic groups deemed “non-Aryan,” as well as German sympathizers of these groups. In 1945, 30,000 people were set free from Dachau by the Allied forces.
Summary of “The Heavyweight Champion of the School-Yard”
In September of 1939, two things happened: World War Two began with the German invasion of Poland, and Liesel became a fighting champion on the playground. Rationing begins, and Hans is secretly depressed. In school, Liesel is doing better at reading but is disruptive in the younger classes and frequently gets a watschen or beating from the teacher, the fierce nun, Sister Maria. In one class, Liesel pretends to read aloud like the other children by reciting a passage she had memorized from The Gravedigger's Handbook. The class laughs at her. At recess, a boy taunts her, and she begins fighting with him, giving him a good licking while a crowd gathers. She is given a beating herself by the nun. As she walks home with Rudy, she remembers her lost family and her failures, her beating, and she crouches in the ditch weeping as it begins to rain. Finally, Rudy puts his arm around her.
Commentary on “The Heavyweight Champion of the School-Yard”
This last scene in Part One shows the beginning of the world war and Liesel's private war. They are connected, for she would not be there if her family had not already been destroyed by Hitler. Liesel, however, though scrawny and illiterate, is a fighter, as she shows. She does not take adversity lying down. This is the quality of a survivor. She proves herself and thereafter, the other kids accept her and stay clear of her.