This story is told from the point of view of Death. It is the second World War and Death is following 9-year-old Leisel through Nazi Germany.
They first meet when Leisel, her younger brother, and her mother are riding on a train. The three on their way to meet the foster family that will be taking custody of the children. Leisel's mother is always sick, and her father, a Communist, has been out of the picture for as long as Leisel can remember. Before they make it to the foster family's home, Leisel's younger brother dies on the train. The conductor throw the women and the dead little boy off the train. It is in an unknown town that six-year-old Warner is buried. In her grief, Leisel finds a book half-buried in the snow. The Grave Digger's Handbook. This is the first book she steals. Never mind that she is illiterate. Never mind that the book is probably dreadfully boring. No. It is the only piece of her brother that she can keep.
Leisel comes to love her foster parents and to call them Mama and Papa. Mama has a foul mouth and uses the name "swine" with affection. The family works hard--Papa is a house painter. Since the war began, though, business has been slow. Papa made the mistake of painting over some anti-Semitic slurs written on the business front of a Jewish acquaintance. From there, Papa's application to join the Nazi party, an application submitted by everyone that knew what was good for them, is under indefinite review. Mama takes in the laundry of wealthy families for extra money. Things are tight.
Every night, Leisel has nightmares about her brother's death. Papa is the one that sits with her at night to calm her. A few times, she wets the bed. It is Papa that is there to clean up the sheets. After one incident, he finds Leisel's hidden copy of The Gravedigger's Handbook under the bed. Rather than punishing her for stealing the text, he begins to teach her to read. Leisel's nightmares disappear as Papa begins giving her reading lessons every night in the basement. The going is slow, but Leisel becomes addicted to the freedom that literacy offers her.
Papa served in WWI. A friend volunteered him to clean the latrines. This saved Papa's life. Every other man in the unit, including that friend, was killed in battle that day. Papa kept the friend's accordion and promised the man's wife that if she ever needed anything from him, he was there to help.
Twenty-some years later, that favor is called in when Max shows up on the front door step. Max is the son of Papa's friend from the first world war. His best friend helped him to track Papa down as a possible ally during the war--Max is Jewish and needs a place to hide from the Nazis. There is already a strain on the family finances. Without a word, though, Papa welcomes Max into the house.
Max gets set up to live in the basement. He has a mattress under the stairs (like HARRY POTTER!) and hidden by a drop cloth and some paint cans.
He chooses to stay in his little alcove day after day. As the weather gets colder, though, Max gets seriously ill. He is moved upstairs to sleep in Leisel's bed. After nine terrifying days, Max finally opens his eyes. But only after the family has faced a brutal reality--If Max died while staying with them, they have no way to dispose of his body. Shit. Max is noble and basically tells them to dump his ass at any time. For the first time, the family really understands what kind of problems hiding Max could really cause them.
Leisel's book thieving ways continue. She makes an unlikely friend that contributes to her thieving ways. Her library grows. Reading becomes easier and more important to her.
Everything that is changes. That's my way of telling you that I super-loved this book, and I could ramble on about it forever. (Not literally, of course.) So I'm leaving you with this. If it's that important actually read it yourself. It's worth it. Promise.
- The narrator is a very serious Death. A very different Death than George Lass. I still read the entire book in her voice. I do not suggest this.
- Leisel and Rudy make me feel like I could steal something. It sounds easy. The only thing holding me back is a nervous bladder. And that I can't handle suspense. And that I would feel bad for the rest of my life.
- I don't know how many of you remember The Upstairs Room. The family in that story builds a complex hiding spot with a false back of the closet to hide the two girls. I kept waiting for some kind of official shelter to be built for Max. Nothing.