review: Number the Stars
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. Houghton Mifflin, 1989 (0-395-51060-0) $13.45; Laurel-Leaf, 1998 (0-440-22753-3) $6.99 pb
One of the best uses of children's literature is to make complex subjects and concepts more immediate and personal, "sizing them down," as it were, to their most basic level. For a subject as complex and staggering as the Holocaust, good children's books are vitally necessary--books that don't try to tell the whole story, but make the situation come alive through one situation, one character. In Number the Stars, Lois Lowry found a story to tell that reveals a lesser known aspect of that evil period: the courage and humanity of ordinary, good people who fought against it. The result is a poignant, life-affirming novel that richly deserved its 1990 Newbery Medal.
It is 1943 in Denmark, but for ten-year-old Annemarie and her best friend Ellen Rosen, life is fairly ordinary, despite the privations of war and the often frightening presence of German soldiers. Then suddenly the danger becomes acute for the Danish Jews and Ellen's family must go into hiding, leaving her behind as Annemarie's "sister." That night the Nazis come and Annemarie just barely manages to break Ellen's Star of David off of her neck in time.
The next day, Annemarie's family goes to visit Uncle Henrik, a fisherman who lives right on the water. "You can stand on the edge of the meadow and look across to Sweden," she tells Ellen, not realizing then the significance of her own words. But when the time has come to say goodbye to her friend, Annemarie understands without being told where she is going--and when it's discovered that a vitally important package has been left behind by the refugees, Annemarie knows that somehow she must get it to the boat. Then she is stopped by German soldiers. She is only a timid little girl: can she possibly find the wits and courage to deceive them?
As told in the afterword of Number the Stars, "almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark--nearly seven thousand people--was smuggled across the sea to Sweden," right before their "relocation" was to begin. This is the kind of story epics can be made of, but Lowry's simply-written book focuses on the small, personal aspects of the drama--just good, caring people doing what they can, sometimes at the cost of their lives--and thereby gives even more meaning to the history. Annemarie doesn't go looking to be a hero--at the beginning of the book she is "glad to be an ordinary person who would never be called upon for courage." But she is called upon, and discovers that even the most frightened person can be brave when she needs to be. Reading her fictional story gives a new understanding to the facts that are told in the afterword: for every Jewish family that made it to Sweden, there is an untold story of goodness and sacrifice. * (8 & up)