The Book Thief is narrated by Death. He informs the reader of his overly abundant and grim work collecting the millions of souls lost during WWII. The story is set in the late 1930s and 1940s in Nazi, Germany in the fictional town of Molching, which could be a conglomeration of the cities of Munich and Olching, both of which are not far from the concentration camp of Dachau.
While Death imparts his experiences of the surrounding suffering, the story centers on the life of a young girl named Liesel Meminger. At the outset, Liesel endures the traumatic experience of her little brother dying and her mother giving her away because she's destitute and Liesel's father is a political prisoner. Liesel is then fostered by the Hubermanns, Hans and Rosa, who treat her like a daughter. Hans is gentle and kind and Rosa is abrupt and verbally abusive, but she loves Liesel nonetheless.
Germany is on the brink of war with book burnings, compulsory Hitler Youth training, Jews being rounded up by the tens of thousands and sent to concentration camps, and the pervasive fear that if one didn't comply, they, too, would be sent to a camp or killed. Liesel, meanwhile, is desperately trying to learn to read, even stealing forbidden books so she can try to decipher their meaning. Everything changes for the Hubermanns when they take a young Jewish man, Max Vanderburg, into hiding from the Nazis.
The story weaves in the power and beauty of words from Liesel's first stolen books, her Papa Hubermann kindly and patiently teaching her to read, and Liesel and Max bonding over stories. Author Alan Gratz also emphasizes the terrible weight of words and their capacity for evil through Hitler's vile propaganda and his use of words to convince a nation to follow his murderous ideology. The Book Thief is a compelling and ingenious story that will leave readers emotionally attached to the characters and with a deeper understanding of the Holocaust and the people behind Nazi Germany.