I'm reading "Book Thief" by Markus Zusak and reached following paragraph:

As far as dispositions go, hers wasn't really enviable, although she had a good record with foster kids in the past. Apparently, she'd straightened a few out.

Does it mean Rosa Hubermann really helped a few kids and make them happier than before?


  • For me 'straighten somebody out' has a more negative connotation, but I think it could be used both ways. I would not really say that she made them happier, more that she taught them to behave themselves or something alike. But her methods doing so remain a mystery to me. Is there more information in the cotext? Dec 29, 2015 at 22:16

3 Answers 3


Helped, yes. Happier, probably... but it usually means something more broad than that and it can vary from person to person. The relevant OED definition is:

[with object] Make tidy or put in order again:

'he sat down at his desk, straightening his things that Lee had moved'

'they are asking for help in straightening out their lives'

As you can see, the example is very non-specific.

In the context that you've cited "straightening out" could involve, for example:

  • Foster children who had become involved in petty crime. Straightening them out could mean getting them back on what is described, not coincidentally, as the "straight and narrow".
  • Getting them off substance abuse (though this would be less of an issue with foster children of the ages described in that book).
  • Rebuilding their self confidence and belief in themselves after bad experiences in earlier childhood with people who were supposed to care for them.
  • Helping them overcome learning difficulties which made them feel alienated from their peers at school.

Basically, anything that improves people's lives and steers them away from self-destructive paths (or lifestyles which are without hope of something better) could be described as "straightening the person out".

A greater amount of happiness is usually the result, but it's more of a by-product of the "straightening" than the actual thing that's changed.

I just noted dukerasputin's comment; he's correct, in some cases "straighten out" can have a negative connotation in the sense of making someone more conservative and conventional, but not always. In the context of that quote I would say that it refers to taking lives that are in some way damaged and unhappy, and restoring them; putting them back on track, as it were.

  • Alan has clearly answered the OP question in context. The foster kids lives are headed off course from being a productive part of society. However, another interpretation of "straighten out" is to correct somone's assumptions or presumptions that can be shown to be factually incorrect (i.e. bent). An example would be; to "straighten out" a friend about a lie they were told or a misunderstanding about another person actions or reasons for acting. Oct 9, 2018 at 20:37

It's important to understand that the idiom has two different meanings. As Alan K suggests, one meaning of "straighten out" is straight-forward and relatively benign: Put things in order, on a desk or in someone's life or wherever.

But when "straighten him out" is used the meaning often is to apply coercion to make him "see the light" -- to convince him to change his opinions and behaviors to those desired by the person doing the "straightening". This can imply an employer reading an employee the "riot act", or it can imply a mobster beating someone up in a dark alley.


There are a few, but similar, meanings depending on the context. In your case, the idiom is more literal: Foster children frequently wind up in a vicious cycle of drugs and crime in America-- statistically as a result of the nature of the foster care system. Let's call that path crooked. Your example suggests turning them from that path onto a "straight and narrow" one.

Another example would be to "aggressively explain" a counterargument such as below:

I can't believe your cousin Mel! He has way too much money to be voting Democrat. Get him on the phone for me so that I can straighten him out!"

The other usage is more nefarious. It denotes a violent, or potentially violent, response.

"He's just sixteen, Daddy. He didn't know what he was doing."
"He slapped my daughter; now he's going to pay."
"What are you going to do? Please don't hurt him."
"Ha ha! I'm not going to jail for that piece of dirt. I'm just gonna call his dad. I imagine he'll straighten him out. I imagine he'll straighten him out good."

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