The Book Thief Summary and Analysis
by Markus Zusak
DOMINOES AND DARKNESS
In the Steiner household, Rudy and the younger children are setting up dominoes while their parents argue with the two Nazi agents in the kitchen about inducting Rudy into a special military school. Rudy eavesdrops on the conversation as the children set off the dominoes by candlelight. Rudy understands that by winning three gold medals at the Hitler Youth carnival, he proved himself not only to his former tormentor Franz Deutscher but to everyone. Rudy's parents refuse to let him go.
THE THOUGHT OF RUDY NAKED
Earlier, a nurse and a doctor have Rudy and two other boys remove their clothes for a physical examination at school. The nurse explains to a teacher in the room that they are creating a "new class of physically and mentally advanced Germans." The doctor says he will take two of them.
A day after the Nazis visited the Steiner household, Rudy tells Liesel about these two events. For days afterward, Liesel has visions of Rudy in the nude.
After the departure of Max, Hans has lost his optimism. He no longer plays the accordion and eagerly awaits his punishment for helping the elderly Jew on the street. In early November, Hans' application to join the Nazi Party is approved, several years after submission. Two days later, Hans is drafted into the German army, which is desperate for new recruits following severe losses against the Soviet Union. Rudy's father Alex Steiner is also drafted.
THE PROMISE KEEPER'S WIFE
The night before Hans is to leave for training, Hans and Alex get drunk at the Knoller against the wishes of their wives. The next morning, Rosa rouses Hans with a bucket of cold water. Liesel unsuccessfully begs Hans not to leave, and Hans asks her to look after his accordion and to continue reading if there is another raid. Rudy and Liesel are devastated by their losses; Rudy tries to get Liesel to run away with him to find and kill Hitler. Liesel reflects on all the people she has lost: her mother, her brother, Max, and now Hans. On their way home, they walk past Alex Steiner's tailor shop, which is now closed.
That night, Liesel awakens and finds Rosa in the living room sitting on the edge of her bed with Hans' accordion.
Alex is sent to an army hospital in Vienna, where he is tasked with mending clothes. Hans is sent to Essen, where he is given an undesirable job with the Air Raid Special Unit: his unit must stay above ground during air raids to put out fires, prop up buildings, and save people. Everyone in the unit had done something impolitic to get this assignment. Hans tells them about his having given bread to a Jew; the Sergeant laughs and tells him he is lucky to be alive.
The job is smoky and incredibly dangerous. Occasionally people would roam through the haze and rubble seeking a missing loved one. In one shift, a bleeding old man asks Hans for help; Hans carries him to safety then finds the man is dead. Later, Hans trips over the corpse of a young boy while rushing from a building; a woman comes down the street asking if anyone has seen her son Rudolf, and the sergeant is unable to bring himself to tell her about the dead boy. The name makes Hans think about Rudy Steiner.
THE BREAD EATERS
Back in Molching, Liesel spends the rest of 1942 thinking about three men, Hans, Max, and Alex. She continues reading The Whistler to Frau Holtzapfel. In the fall, another parade of Jews takes place, and Liesel rushes to see if Max is among them. In the middle of December, a third, smaller collection of Jews is marched down the street. Rudy shows Liesel a bag containing six pieces of bread. They place the bread on the street in advance of the Jews and hide; Liesel hears Rudy's stomach growl. When the procession arrives, Jews snatch up the bread. A soldier notices Liesel and Rudy, and the two run. Liesel is kicked in the backside by a soldier, but the two receive no other punishment. Max is not among this group either.
THE HIDDEN SKETCHBOOK
Another air raid takes place shortly before Christmas, and Liesel again reads to the shelter.
After the raid, Rosa gives Liesel the present Max made for her: a book called The Word Shaker. The book contains pages full of sketches and stories. On page 117 is a lightly-illustrated story, a fable about "The Word Shaker":
A man, apparently Hitler, decideds he would rule the world. One day he sees a mother scolding her child until he cries then minutes later speaking very softly to him until he smiles. The Fuhrer decides he will rule the world with words. He plants the seeds of words and symbols across his country and cultivates them. He beckons people with his freshly-picked words and places them on a conveyor belt, through which they are hypnotized with words and outfitted with symbols. The demand for his words becomes so great that people are hired to cultivate the massive forests of words; some, called "word shakers," are employed to climb the trees and throw the words to people below.
A small, skinny girl is the "best word shaker of her region because she knew how powerless a person could be" without words. She could climb higher than anyone else. The girl befriends a man who is despised by her homeland; when he is sick, she sheds a tear on his face. The tear, made of friendship, becomes a seed, which the girl plants and cultivates. The tree steadily grows to the tallest in the forest. The Fuhrer, enraged, orders the tree cut down and takes an axe to it. The girl defiantly climbs to the top of it, and the Fuhrer's ax is unable to make a dent in the tree trunk. For months, the girl remains in the tree, and the Fuhrer's soldiers are unable to destroy it as long as she is there.
A new axman arrives, but instead of an ax, he takes a hammer and places nails up the tree. Using the nails as footholds, he climbs up to the girl, miles high above the clouds. The man turns out to be the girl's friend from earlier. They climb down together, and the massive tree falls, crushing part of the forest and creating a new path through it. They walk down the horizontal trunk; behind them, most of the onlookers had returned to the rest of the forest, but the two friends can hear "voices and words behind them, on the word shaker's tree."
THE ANARCHIST'S SUIT COLLECTION
On Christmas Eve, Liesel and Rudy go to his father's store, where she gets him a "present": a navy blue suit.
"The Word Shaker" is the second of two stories given by Max to Liesel and reproduced in the novel. It is a simple allegory for Nazi Germany and the power of words and compassion. Hitler's rhetorical style is likened to a mother who scolds her son, damaging his feelings, then speaks to softly to him, perking him up. He decides he can control people through words and conquer the world without having to fire a gun. He grows a forest of propaganda, hypnotizes people with his words, and hires them to maintain the forest and propagandize for him. The girl, who represents Liesel, knows the power of words as well as Hitler. She starts off as a word shaker, but her love for her persecuted friend causes her to plant an impenetrable tree that grows miles high, much higher than any of Hitler's trees. Only when her friend arrives does she finally climb down, allowing the tree to fall and destroy a chunk of Hitler's forest. Although the tree does not destroy the entire forest, it carves a new path through it, and others follow the man and girl as they walk together down the horizontal trunk.
Liesel's great compassion towards Max and defiance of the Nazis are symbolized by the massive tree that Hitler cannot cut down. Even though the tree does not destroy all of Hitler's forest, it destroys enough of it to create a path that other resisters to Hitler's propaganda can follow. Thus a singular act of defiance reverberates throughout the country and inspires others to defy Hitler as well. The immense height of the girl's tree suggests that her friendship is so boundless and so inspired that it is more powerful than Hitler's propaganda of hatred. Thus can words of sincere love effectively combat words of self-serving cruelty.
Reading "The Word Shaker" effectively caps Liesel's realization of the awesome power of words. Throughout the novel, Hitler's propaganda pervades the lives of the principal characters and impels the entire nation to wage an horrific war and engage in genocide. There is a direct link from Hitler's book Mein Kampf to any number of tragedies that have affected Liesel's life: the deaths of her mother and brother, the persecution of Max, and the recent loss of Hans and Rudy's father to the war. "The Word Shaker" validates the use of words and defiance which spring from compassionate intentions to combat words which spring from hatred. Liesel herself touched on this lesson early on, when she beat up Ludwig Schmeikl for insulting her illiteracy; she later apologized after witnessing the book burning and the Nazi speaker's invective against Jews and Communists. Like the girl in "The Word shaker," Liesel, as well as her tall foster father Hans, is capable of maintaining a potent defiance against Nazi cruelty. Max's story insists that Liesel's compassion is strong enough to destroy miles of Hitler's evil.
The Book Thief Essays and Related Content
- The Book Thief: Major Themes
- The Book Thief: Essays
- The Book Thief: Lesson Plan
- The Book Thief: Questions
- The Book Thief: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Markus Zusak: Biography
- The Book Thief Summary
- About The Book Thief
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Quotes and Analysis
- Summary and Analysis of Prologue
- Summary and Analysis of Part One
- Summary and Analysis of Part Two
- Summary and Analysis of Part Three
- Summary and Analysis of Part Four
- Summary and Analysis of Part Five
- Summary and Analysis of Part Six
- Summary and Analysis of Part Seven
- Summary and Analysis of Part Eight
- Summary and Analysis of Part Nine
- Summary and Analysis of Part Ten and Epilogue
- Notes on the Holocaust and Dachau
- Related Links on The Book Thief
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 3
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 5
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources