Summary and Analysis
Part 1: The Grave Digger's Handbook: The Heavyweight Champion of the School-Yard
It is the summer of 1939. That fall, World War II begins, and Liesel becomes the heavyweight champion of the schoolyard. Sister Maria gives the children a progress test at school. At first, she doesn't have Liesel read aloud, but Rudy speaks up, saying that Liesel needs a turn. Sister Maria says that Liesel can't do it, that she can't read. Liesel says that she can and jumps up from her seat and grabs a book. Instead of reading, though, she starts reciting parts of The Grave Digger's Handbook that she's memorized. She gets into trouble. Later that day, in the schoolyard, Liesel is taunted by Ludwig Schmeikl and pummels him in a fight. She beats up Tommy Müller, too, because she sees him standing there, smiling. After receiving two hidings (a Watschen) from Sister Maria that day, Liesel walks home with the Steiners and breaks down, asking why her brother had to die.
Death's descriptions of Hitler's voice over the radio resonate again with this theme of words carrying power, how they motivate an entire nation to pursue war and the goal of "Deutschland über Alles," or "Germany above All." This power contrasts, again, with Liesel's lack of power resulting from her inability to read, which leads to her violent actions in the schoolyard, as she overcompensates in defending herself. The larger war that Germany has incited parallels Liesel's smaller war in the schoolyard. Liesel's success with her fists will earn her a friend later in the novel, another character who has a passion for boxing. At the end of this chapter, Rudy has his arm around Liesel, comforting her and walking her home. Rudy, the boy who wants to defeat the world, and Liesel, the "book thief without . . . words." They're not quite equipped yet, but they have each other.