Book Review: Number the Stars, Lois Lowry (1989)

April 9th, 2014 1:08 pm by Kelly Garbato

“the gift of a world of human decency”

five out of five stars

It’s September 1943, three years since German forces seized control of Denmark. Nazi soldiers patrol the streets and control the government, hospitals, schools, newspapers, and rail system; possessing an illegal newspaper like The Free Danes might very well get you killed. Copenhagen is under an 8PM curfew, and supplies are strictly rationed. And now, three years later, the Nazis are just beginning to “relocate” Jewish citizens, the way they have in so many other occupied territories.

But the Danish government received warning, which it passed on to Jewish religious leaders. Thanks to one German high official – not to mention countless courageous Danes – most of Denmark’s 7,000 Jewish citizens were smuggled to safety in Sweden. In just a matter of weeks. Right under the occupiers’ noses.

Against this backdrop, Lois Lowry weaves a story of courage and compassion that’s only partially a work of fiction. When word comes that they’re in danger, the Rosen family sends their only daughter, ten-year-old Ellen, to stay with family friends the Johansens: Ellen’s best friend Annemarie, her little sister Kirsti, and their parents. When Nazi soldiers come knocking, Ellen poses as the Johansens’ dead daughter Lise. Afraid of arousing the soldiers’ suspicions, the women travel to stay with Inge’s brother, Henrik, who lives by the sea. Before the war is over, young Annemarie will find her resolve tested. Will she undertake a dangerous mission in order to save her friend Ellen – or will she succumb to her fear of the soldiers?

Suitable for children, but also rich with adult meaning, Number the Stars is a beautiful and moving story about courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Lowry peppers her story with fairy tale elements – particularly during Annemarie’s mission – making a potentially upsetting book that much more palatable to younger and more sensitive readers. And by viewing wartime occupation through the eyes of a child, we gain insight into how those of different ages processed and coped with the traumatic events unfolding around them.

(It kind of breaks your heart when Annemarie observes that the soldiers mostly escape five-year-old Kirsti’s notice: “For Kirsti, the soldiers were simply part of the landscape, something that had always been there, on every corner, as unimportant as lampposts, throughout her remembered life.”)

Bravery isn’t the absence of fear, as Annemarie learns, but the will to overcome it, no matter the cost. Through their Resistance, the Danish people did indeed give “the gift of a world of human decency.”

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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