In Number the Stars, there's never any question about what's right and what's wrong. All the Danish characters we meet share a united front: what the Nazis are doing is terrible, and the Danes must do whatever they can to stop it. Annemarie's family doesn't hesitate for a moment. They will help the Rosens no matter how dangerous it might be. There's simply no other option. Annemarie's father sums it up pretty nicely:
"We don't know where [the Germans are taking the Jews] and we don't really know why. They call it 'relocation.' We don't even know what that means. We only know that it is wrong, and it is dangerous, and we must help." (4.68)
Number the Stars very clearly separates the people doing right (the Danes) from the people doing wrong (the Nazis).
In case we didn't get the picture during the story itself, Lowry drives the point home in her Afterword. The author shares the story of a Resistance fighter named Kim Malthe-Bruun, who remained hopeful even up to his execution by the Nazis. She recommends—strongly recommends, we might add—that people today must keep working on Malthe-Bruun's dream to "create an ideal of human decency" (Afterword.19).
Bottom line: both the voice of the narrator and the voice of the author scream strict moral code. And you know what? In this case, we're totally down with it. Human decency sounds pretty good to us.
Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way. We've got a young main character (Annemarie is ten years old); straightforward, plain language; and a topic (saving your best friend from danger) that's aimed at a young adult audience. Number the Stars has also won the Newbery award, which is only given out to books in the children's literature genre. And, oh yeah, a very reputable children's lit author wrote it. So, children's literature? Check.
Number the Stars also qualifies as historical fiction and war drama because, well, it's set in 1940s Denmark during the middle of World War II. But just because a book is set in a specific time period, we can't go ahead and call it historical fiction. What makes it fit that genre is that fictional people, like Annemarie, Ellen, and their families, experience events that nonfictionally happened to people (i.e. Nazi occupation of Denmark).
And this story doesn't just resemble a general time in history. It's actually based on what happened to a real-life Resistance fighter named Kim Malthe-Bruun (Peter's nonfiction counterpart). In the story, we're really impressed by Peter's bravery and really sad about his death, right? Well it's even more impressive and even sadder knowing that it all happened to a real young man.
The events of this real-life war also dictate what happens to the characters. That means that because Lowry set the story in Denmark in the 1940s, the characters have to experience whatever was going on in Denmark in the 1940s (funny how that works, huh?). She kind of wrote herself into a corner there—a fascinating corner, but a corner nonetheless. Even small elements of the characters' lives (like Kirsti not being able to get shoes made of real leather) are influenced by real wartime situations.
So remember, historical fiction isn't just about books called A Lady of the Court with a picture of Fabio in Medieval garb on the cover. There's some good stuff out there.
Get ready for a shout-out, Bible-style. The phrase "number the stars" comes from Psalm 147:4, when a guy named Peter reads these words out loud to a bunch of people who are in some major danger:
O praise the Lord.
How good it is to sing psalms to our God!
How pleasant to praise him!
The Lord is rebuilding Jerusalem;
he gathers in the scattered sons of Israel.
It is he who heals the broken in spirit
and binds up their wounds,
he who numbers the stars one by one… (10.34)
The God described here sees everything that's happening (he can count the stars, for crying out loud!)—and that means he sees what's happening to you, too. According to this psalm, you're not alone in the world. Pretty comforting, right?
Quoting the Bible is never a throwaway, so we have to expect that it holds some hefty meaning when the shout-out is right there in the title. Let's take a closer look.
The Nazis treat the Jews as the ultimate Other, so it's important that the psalm that Peter reads is one from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), a text read by both Jews and Christians. If Peter had read a passage from the New Testament, it would have emphasized the differences between Christians and Jews. Instead, both the Jews and the Christians present can find comfort in the words—this psalm holds meaning for all of them.
For one of the listeners, though, the psalm seems like it's too much to take. Because of how difficult things are, Annemarie has a hard time believing in the goodness of this God:
The words were unfamiliar to her, and she tried to listen, tried to understand, tried to forget the war and the Nazis, tried not to cry, tried to be brave. The night breeze moved the dark curtains at the open windows. Outside, she knew, the sky was speckled with stars. How could anyone number them one by one, as the psalm said? There were too many. The sky was too big. (10.36)
While it's tough to put ourselves in Annemarie's shoes, we can definitely understand why she's feeling so hopeless. After all, what if we think of the stars in the sky as a symbol for the Jews in Europe during the Holocaust? It's hard to imagine any God being able to "number them one by one," keeping them all safe. And especially because of all the lives that were lost, it can be tough to keep the faith.
Instead of talking about all the Jews who suffered during World War II, Number the Stars zooms in on just a few people, both Jews and Christians, and shows how their lives were affected.
Think about it this way: it's kind of like looking just at the Little Dipper instead of the entire galaxy. While the God described in the psalm might be able to keep track of that entire galaxy, people can only see a limited amount. So Annemarie and her family can't save all the Jews in Copenhagen, but they can save a few—and for these few, they are able to "number them one by one."
The end of Number the Stars lines right up with the end of World War II. This seems like a natural stopping point, because at the end of the war, the different threads of the story can all be woven together. Sure, we already know that the Rosens made it off to Sweden safely, but fast forwarding to the end of the war assures us that all of our characters are safe and sound.
But wait a second. Even with this tidy ending, we don't get closure on everything. We know what has happened to the Johansens and to Peter (R.I.P.), but where are the Rosens? Where's Ellen? What will her homecoming be like? Will Annemarie and Ellen still be the friends that they used to be? Or will their experiences in "different worlds" (10.4) have pushed them too far apart? What other questions would you like to hear answered?
And don't forget: at the end of Number the Stars, the Nazis' reign has ended. But the healing—of Copenhagen, of the Jews—has barely begun.
Denmark in 1943 wasn't the happiest place in the world. Like most other parts of Europe during World War II, the country was under German occupation. This means that Denmark, a smaller and more peaceful country, had fallen to the control of a larger and more aggressive political group, the Nazis. Sound crappy? It was.
At first, the Nazis didn't make too many changes in Denmark, but by the time the book's action gets underway, the Nazis are affecting daily life in Denmark more and more. They decide how late people can stay out, whether or not they can use artificial light, what kind of food they can eat, and even if they can keep their jobs. If you want to learn more about the whole historical hoopla, check out the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum site's description of the Danish Resistance. It's a great place to start, and it can lead you to some other awesome resources.
This historical reality seeps into all the cracks of Number the Stars. When the book begins, the Nazis are already ingrained in the story's setting. Young kids like Kirsti can't even remember a time when the soldiers weren't there: "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" (1.40). That's just life in Denmark in 1943.
But as the story goes on, the soldiers become a little more, well, intrusive: "two German soldiers appeared. Annemarie tensed. Not here, on the train, too? They were everywhere" (6.39). Jewish families like Ellen's are not safe—not out on the streets, not in school, not even in their own home. Heck, the soldiers even come into Henrik's house during (what looks like) a funeral. If you're not safe in your own home, how can you be safe anywhere? That's the point: you can't. Ellen's family has to travel out of the country to a neutral territory just to find refuge.
But wait a minute. If this story is so rooted in history, why don't we get the nitty-gritty details? Weren't Jewish people in 1940s Europe dying gruesome deaths in concentration camps? Lowry has actually gotten a lot of flak for that. What do you think? Should she have delved deeper into the tougher, more brutal topics?
Number the Stars uses simple language to tell a complicated story. The heroine, Annemarie, is ten years old, and we get the story mostly through her lens. So fifth graders on up should be able to get through this one with no problems.
But don't forget that Annemarie goes through some crazy tough situations: war, sacrifice, death—none of these are easy topics to stomach. So even though this book is easy to read at the sentence level, the clear, simple words might even mask the danger that the characters face.
All of this makes for a pretty cool effect, we think. Dealing with these subjects through the lens of an innocent young girl really makes us look at this historical period from a different angle.
It's a challenge to find a subject that's more complicated or emotionally raw than the Holocaust. But Number the Stars approaches the ideas of Nazism, Resistance, persecution, and morality just as a smart ten-year-old would. Even though the concepts in the novel are messy and difficult, the language that Lois Lowry uses is plain and simple.
Let's take a look at one example in particular to see if we can highlight the simplicity of language. In this instance, Annemarie is talking about Resistance fighters, the Danish people who stood up to the Nazis. The Resistance was a complicated political movement, and there are so many things you could say about it, so many ways you could try to define it. But how would you understand the Resistance if you were ten years old and living through it yourself? How would you understand the Resistance if you saw it happening around you, instead of reading about it from the comfort of an armchair?
The Resistance fighters were Danish people—no one knew who, because they were very secret—who were determined to bring harm to the Nazis however they could. They damaged the German trucks and cars, and bombed their factories. They were very brave. Sometimes they were caught and killed. (1.55)
Annemarie boils down the Resistance into a few very important essentials, telling us exactly what she needs to know. And because Annemarie is our main squeeze in the story, all she needs to know is all we need to know.
The Star of David (a star with six points, not five) is a pretty in-your-face symbol. Star of David = Judaism. Voilà.
Since we're talking about Number the Stars here, it's important to remember that the Star of David is often associated with the Holocaust and World War II. Here's why: in many occupied countries, the Nazis singled out Jewish people by making them wear yellow Stars of David pinned on their clothes. To be seen wearing the star put you in danger. But to be caught taking one off would make things even worse.
Taking off a Star of David… hmmm… sounds familiar. Oh yeah! That's exactly what Ellen does when the Nazi soldiers come to the Johansens' house. She has to remove the necklace in order to hide her identity from the Nazis.
But Ellen is still Ellen—and she's definitely still Jewish—after she takes off the necklace. That serves as a helpful reminder for us readers: a symbol is just a symbol. And it's a symbol that Annemarie can adopt, too. By wearing the necklace in Ellen's place, Annemarie is making a statement: it's okay for her friend to stop hiding and honor those parts of her identity.
Ellen's Star of David necklace reminds her of her Jewish faith and her relationship with her father who gave her the necklace. And by focusing on the Star of David as a representation of Ellen's identity, Lois Lowry protects this important symbol from the Nazis' cruelties. In using a corrupted version of the symbol, the Nazis hoped to repress the Jewish faith. But Lowry turns that very idea on its head, reminding us that no matter what, the Star of David is a source of pride, not a tool of oppression.
(We've got a lot more for you to chew on, don't worry. For more on Ellen's necklace itself and what it means to Ellen, check out "Tools of Characterization." For more on why stars in general are so important in the book, check out "What's Up With the Title?" But don't forget to come back to Symbols—this book is loaded with 'em.)
We all know the story of "Little Red Riding-Hood." Girl goes to meet grandma and ends up meeting the big, bad wolf. Wolf eats grandma and girl. Lumberjack saves the day and grandma and girl both make it out (literally) alive. Happily ever after, the end.
Annemarie tells this story while walking through the woods with her super-secret delivery. She pretends she's telling the story to her little sister, but we're pretty sure she's just trying to comfort herself here. (We sure would be.) Unfortunately, Annemarie's situation is weirdly similar to Little Red Riding-Hood's. Both are traveling through the woods to visit a relative, and both are carrying a basket of food with bread and cheese in it. Oh, and both end up meeting a big bad something—only in Annemarie's case, it's Nazis and their dogs.
All this storytelling just adds to the suspense of Number the Stars. Will Annemarie have the same fate as Little Red Riding-Hood? Will she get eaten by the big, bad wolf? Or will she spit in the face of fairy tales everywhere—sorry, Kirsti—and be the hero on her own?
The fact that Annemarie has a different fate than Little Red makes us realize that Annemarie is unique: she's no fairy tale damsel in distress. Instead, she's a brave heroine who faces the dark woods on her own in order to save the day.
(By the way, there are definitely echoes of other fairy tales in Number the Stars, but "Little Red Riding-Hood" gets the most screen time. And the most Shmoop time.)
This one's a downer—don't say we didn't warn you. Ready?
After Lise's death, her parents keep all her stuff hidden in a trunk:
In the blue carved trunk in the corner of this bedroom—Annemarie could see its shape even in the dark—were folded Lise's pillowcases with their crocheted edges, her wedding dress with its hand-embroidered neckline, unworn, and the yellow dress that she had worn and danced in, with its full skirt flying, at the party celebrating her engagement to Peter. (2.42)
All of these items—especially the dresses she wore (and planned to wear) to celebrate this oh-so-happy occasion—are a painful reminder that Lise herself is gone. Her parents just hide her things away and try not to think about her death. Annemarie, on the other hand, likes to look through Lise's trunk. And actually, this habit gives the trunk some eerie parallels to Great-aunt Birte's casket, which is also full of clothes.
By keeping Ellen's Star of David necklace in Lise's trousseau, Annemarie also creates a bond between Lise, her biological sister, and Ellen, her new kind-of sister. Of course, there's one big difference: when the war is over, Annemarie will be able to open the trunk and reclaim the necklace (and she'll be able to see Ellen again, too). Lise, on the other hand, will never come back.
But we're hopeful about one thing: after the war, Annemarie's parents are more willing to remember Lise again. Before, they just tried to hide their pain from Annemarie. They even tried to make up for what happened in the past by keeping Ellen safe in a way that they couldn't keep their real daughter safe. But once the reality of the war that killed their daughter is further behind them, they might be able to accept Lise's death and begin to heal.
In Number the Stars, we know exactly what Annemarie knows and nothing more. And considering how much she's left in the dark, this is a pretty big deal. It means that we really get to see the world from her perspective. She doesn't know why Peter has come to visit, and we don't either. She doesn't know what's in Great-aunt Birte's coffin, and we don't either.
At one point, her uncle Henrik tells her that they are keeping things from her not because she can't handle the truth, but because she's actually safer if she doesn't know it. The characters "protect […] one another by not telling" (11.24-25). Is Lois Lowry trying to protect us, too? Would this book be too frightening for young adults if we knew more than Annemarie?
P.S. In some moments, not knowing what's going on makes things more frightening, don't you think? Think about the scene when the soldiers stop Annemarie in the woods. What's in the package? Because she doesn't know, we don't know. And that lack of 4-1-1 keeps us on the edge of our seats, clinging to the closest teddy bear—yeah, we admit it.
Annemarie and Ellen are ordinary girls living in extraordinary times (1940s Nazi-occupied Denmark). They don't have many luxuries, and they can't even run down the street without running into soldiers. Nothing is majorly getting in the way of their Gone With the Wind fun quite yet, but there's trouble a-brewin'.
The Nazis are starting to do their thing: they are planning to round up all the Jews in Denmark and take them away. Bottom, scary line: the Rosens aren't safe in Denmark anymore.
The Rosens have to hide—but where? The Johansens step up to take care of Ellen, but the Nazis come looking for her right away. Clearly this isn't a secure enough solution, and they'll have to head for safer waters (literally).
Against the odds (and complications), the Johansens get the Rosens and some other Jewish people safely out of the city and into the countryside, where fisherman Henrik has committed to smuggling them across the sea to Sweden. The smuggling plan rests on a very important small package, which is supposed to be taken to Henrik. But the delivery plan goes up in flames. Annemarie is the only person left who can try to get the package to Henrik. When she steps up—without hesitation—to deliver the package, we see a turning point for her character. She becomes a true hero.
Annemarie has to make it from Henrik's house to Henrik's boat all by herself. After a nail-biting trip through the woods, she runs into a bunch of Nazi soldiers—and their dogs. Will they stop her in her tracks? Will the package ever get to Henrik? Will Ellen be safe?
Finally everyone can relax a little now that Annemarie and Henrik have both made it home safely. And most importantly, Ellen and her family made it to Sweden (that was the whole point to begin with!). As with any good denouement, there's some major explanation going on here. In this case, Henrik explains to Annemarie what was in the package and why she was so majorly heroic for delivering it.
The end of World War II is also the end of the story. The bad guys have finally been beaten and are retreating from Copenhagen. Soon, Denmark will be safe for the Jews and Ellen and her family will be able to come back. We know life will never be the same for our characters, but let's be honest: anything's better than what they all just lived through.