Number the Stars

Number the Stars

by Lois Lowry
Publisher: Yearling
Mass market paperback, 137 pages
Current Retail Price: $6.99
Used Price: $4.50 (1 in stock) Condition Policy

Historical Setting: Denmark, WWII, 1943

In the afterword toNumber the Stars, Lois Lowry says her hope is that this story of Nazi-occupation Denmark will show that "the gift of a world of human decency" is an achievable goal. It's an odd statement considering the fact that Adolf Hitler's war on Europe is one of the premier examples of alackof human decency in recent history.

The story follows ten-year-old Annemarie Johansen through a few days in Copenhagen and Gilleleje. Her best friend, Ellen Rosen, is a Jewish girl whose parents have become increasingly uncomfortable amid the anti-Jewish climate. We meet both girls running home from school, and straight into a couple of German soldiers who question and intimidate them.

Days later, the Rosens must flee Copenhagen. This bid for freedom is the central conflict of the novel, as Annemarie's parents and her dead sister's fiancé Peter Neilsen (a member of the Danish resistance) orchestrate an escape plan. Ellen comes to stay with the Johansen's, and her parents vanish.

An adventure ensues in which Mama, Annemarie, and Kirsti Johansen flee with Ellen to Uncle Henrik's farm on the coast. Henrik is a fisherman, and as a member of the resistance he uses his fishing boat to ferry Jewish fugitivies to Sweden, a free state. German soldiers are everywhere, and there are many narrow escapes.

It's a simple plot, and simply told. Lowry doesn't spend time evoking different customs, places, or cultures, instead focusing on the persecution of the Jews through showing how the Nazi invasion threw their lives into disorder. She shows the atmosphere of fear and distrust that arose, and how humanitarian Danes and innocent Jews alike suffered.

That's about all she does, really. There's no description of Nazi violence or the horrors of concentration camps, no really scary moments. Lowry has a way of defusing the tension before it's resolved, so that it isn't hard to see that everything will turn out at least mostly all right for the characters.

Obviously, we wouldn't want her to go too far in a book for children. But kids with little knowledge of World War II and its evils will have barely even a vague idea of the dangers threatening the Rosens. Because we never see or hear about Nazi brutality, it seems like there's a lot of running for no real reason except that the soldiers are rough and rude.

More problematic, Lowry's humanism and trust in the innate goodness of the human spirit leads her to focus on the triumphs of the war and its civilian heroes without ever really looking at what made their deeds noble. It's simply assumed that helping the underdog is a good thing, without any serious reflection on the nature of ethics.

Again, this is for kids, so we can't be too harsh. Still, for such a fascinating and horrifying period, there's very little that's interesting or terrifying here. It's decently written, and it gives a fair picture of some of the surface tensions in German-occuppied Denmark, but for a more realistic and tense picture of Jews in Nazi Europe, we'd suggestAFather's Promiseby Donna Lynn Hess.

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