The Book Thief is set in Germany, before and during - World War II. The story is told from the point of view of Death, a reluctant collector of souls, who does not enjoy the job appointed to him. One of the few pleasures he has is in the story of the book thief, Liesel Meminger. Liesel's story begins when she and her brother are sent away by their mother to the Hubermanns, a foster family. However, on the way to the Hubermann's, Liesel's brother Werner dies. As the gravediggers are burying her brother, Liesel steals the gravedigger's handbook, despite her inability to read. She later arrives at the Hubermann's house on Himmel Street in Molching and meets her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, who treat her well, despite Rosa's infamous swearing. Liesel then meets Rudy Steiner, a neighbour of her own age who later becomes her best friend. Rudy is well known for his impersonation of the African-American athlete Jesse Owens and his flame for Liesel (especially the fact that he asks her for a kiss whenever it is possible to fit the request into the conversation). Eventually Hans Hubermann takes in a Jewish refugee, Max Vandenburg, and lets him stay in the Hubermann's basement because Max's father saved Hans's life during World War I, an event which led him to question the reasoning behind the Jewish persecution (and left him in possession of Max's deceased father's accordion. Max becomes Liesel's close friend, and he chronicles the experience in a series of sketches, as well as two homemade books for Liesel. (All of Max's books are made by painting over the words in a copy of Mein Kampf.) However, because Hans helped another Jew as he was being marched to a nearby camp, Max is forced to leave, fearing that the Hubermann's house will be searched by nazis SS.

Meanwhile, World War II is creeping closer to Himmel Street, bringing death to the area. The Nazi Party asks the Steiner family for Rudy in order to send him to a Nazi "prep" school and then later on to war, but when the Steiners refuse, Rudy's father is sent away as punishment. Hans is also sent away; he survives his brief draft into the army and returns, but one soldier, the son of one of Liesel's neighbors, commits suicide because he felt he should have died with his brother. Shortly after an air raid, an Allied plane crashes just outside the town, and Liesel and Rudy watch the pilot die. This is death's second encounter with Liesel. The threat of an air raid increases by the day, and during drills the neighbourhood gathers in basements of "adequate depth" for protection. Here, Liesel becomes more aware of the power of words, as she reads to her neighbours and family to calm them. However, one day, the alarms are too late. All the citizens of Himmel Street, except for Liesel are killed in a late night bombing. She survives because she is writing her life story in the Hubermann's basement when the bombs crash. Liesel is overcome by grief at the deaths of her family and friends, and loss of the only happiness she had ever known. She witnesses both her parents' corpses as well as Rudy's, whom she kisses as a final goodbye. This is her third encounter with Death, who picks up her discarded autobiography, bringing him new perspective on the life of this strange girl. Miraculously, Max survives the camps and is reunited with Liesel several years later, when Liesel is working in Alex Steiner's shop, since he has also astonishingly and ironically survived the war. The story ends with Liesel's death as an old woman, living with her family in Sydney. Death questions her about her life, showing her the long discarded autobiography, and comments that he is "haunted by humans," which is very ironic seeing that usually humans are afraid of Death, not vice versa

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