I had never heard of Number the Stars by Lois Lowry until seeing it listed on Carrie’s Reading to Know Classics Book Club for November. It was published in 1989 and awarded a Newberry medal in 1990. Its name is taken from Psalm 147, read in a moment of need:
Praise ye the Lord: for it is good to sing praises unto our God; for it is pleasant; and praise is comely.
The Lord doth build up Jerusalem: he gathereth together the outcasts of Israel.
He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds.
He telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by their names.
It’s the story of WWII in Denmark through the eyes of a ten year old girl, Annemarie. At the opening of the story, the Nazis have been in Denmark for two years. Their beloved king had surrendered because they were a small country without much of an army, and they would only lose people in a war. Soldiers with guns are on almost all the street corners. One of them scared Annemarie and her friend, Ellen, by stopping them when they were racing down the street. Different items have been rationed or are no longer available.
Ellen’s family, the Rosens, are Jewish and good friends with Annemarie’s family, the Johansens. When the Rosens receive word that the Jews are about to be “relocated,” some members of the Resistance help many of them to escape. Mr. and Mrs. Rosen depart while leaving Ellen with the Johansens for a while, everyone pretending that Ellen is another daughter.
Annemarie’s mother takes the girls to her uncle’s house for a visit, and Annemarie perceives it has something to do with helping the Jews. When her mother and uncle begin talking of a Great Aunt Birte who has died and whose casket will be brought to his house. Annemarie knows there is no such person as Great-Aunt Birte and she is offended that they lied to her, but her uncle explains the situation as much as he can. He explains that not even he knows everything about the operation and that “it is much easier to be brave if you do not know everything.”
Annemarie and Ellen are delighted to find that the Rosens are among those whom Uncle Henrik and others are helping, but sad that that means Ellen will have to go away. There are several scares before they can actually leave, however, and Annemarie finds herself in a position of being the only one who can carry out a vital part.
Early in the story Annemarie wonders if she would be brave enough to die to protect her friends and comforts herself that she is only an “ordinary person who would never be called upon for courage.” I really liked how the bravery and courage of “ordinary people” were woven into the story. For some it was being part of an underground plot to help the Jews escape, for some it was facing their fear of an ocean to enable their family to get to freedom, for others it was pretending life is normal when it is anything but. When Annemarie’s protests her uncle calling her brave, because she had actually been terribly frightened, her uncle tells her, “That’s all being brave means – not thinking about the dangers. Just thinking about what you must do. Of course you were frightened. I was too, today. But you kept your mind on what you had to do” (pp. 122-123).
I have heard that sentiment in many a story of real-life heroes. They didn’t think themselves brave or heroic. They just did what needed to be done.
I really enjoyed the afterword, too, in which the author explains which parts of the story are real and which are fictional. Some of the characters are fictional, though some are based on real ones, but the historical facts are accurate. Denmark helped almost its entire Jewish population (nearly 7,000 people) by smuggling them into Sweden.
This story has the same vibe to me as another favorite children’s book, Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie by Peter Roop. Though the plot and setting are different, it has the same theme of being able to do and face something you didn’t think you could. I enjoyed this story very much and am thankful to Heather for choosing it for us.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)