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Number the Stars

by Lois Lowry

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Number the Stars is set in 1943 in Copenhagen. King Christian X of Denmark surrendered his land to the German invaders in 1940 because Denmark's army was small and any attempt to match military might with the Nazis would have resulted in destruction and suffering. Even after Copenhagen is occupied by the Nazis, the king continues his habit of riding his horse through the streets of the city every morning, without benefit of a bodyguard. When a Nazi soldier asks a young boy where the king's bodyguards are, the boy replies that all of Denmark is the king's bodyguard. Later, when it becomes apparent that the Nazis plan to relocate the country's Jews, Annemarie says, "Now I think that all of Denmark must be the bodyguard for the Jews, as well."

Across a narrow straight from Denmark is Sweden, which has not yet been invaded by the Nazis. The Johansens' efforts to smuggle Ellen and her family to Sweden in Number the Stars accurately reflect the actions of countless Danes who helped their Jewish neighbors escape the country during World War II.

Literary Qualities

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In Number the Stars Lowry uses small details to illuminate larger events. A scene as mundane as Mrs. Johansen and Mrs. Rosen sitting and sipping from cups together is transformed when the reader realizes that the two mothers are actually drinking hot water flavored with herbs. There is no coffee, tea, or sugar in wartime Copenhagen, and this shortage is just one of many revealed matter-of-factly through Lowry's prose. The children play with paper dolls cut from old magazines; the men who work with Mr. Johansen roll dried weeds in paper in order to smoke; Mr. Rosen corrects school papers at night by candlelight, because there is no electricity; Kirsti gets new shoes, but they are ugly ones, made out of fish skin rather than leather.

Told in the third person, Number the Stars reflects a child's view of the Nazi occupation of Denmark. To Annemarie, the Nazis are impersonal and inscrutable figures. The first time the reader sees the soldiers it is through Annemarie's eyes: 'There were two of them. That meant two helmets, two sets of cold eyes glaring at her, and four tall shiny boots planted firmly on the sidewalk, blocking her path to home." The image of these "shiny boots" runs throughout the book; the Nazis themselves have no identities of their own. Annemarie realizes that the best defense against the Nazis is the preservation of her own identity and ideals. By remaining true to an innate sense of justice, Annemarie and the other members of the Resistance are able to save the lives of many of Denmark's Jews.

Social Sensitivity

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Number the Stars is a story that honestly approaches the tragedy of the Holocaust and uses the events of the war to show humanity's potential for courage and decency. In the weeks following the Jewish High Holidays in 1943, nearly seven thousand of Denmark's Jews were smuggled across the sea to Sweden. Lowry does not talk about the Nazi concentration camps or the Jews' struggles elsewhere in Europe. Instead, she chooses to focus on one country—and one particular set of characters—in order to emphasize that ordinary people were involved in the Resistance movement. The Johansens are willing to let Annemarie risk her life to carry the handkerchief to Uncle Henrik. Mother and daughter learn the importance of acting on their beliefs rather than waiting for others to act for them.

For Further Reference

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Haley-James, Shirley. "Lois Lowry." Horn Book 66 (August 1990): 422-424. An inside view of the author, written by a close friend.

Lowry, Lois. "Newbery Medal Acceptance." Horn Book 66 (August 1990): 412-421. Lowry talks about winning the Newbery Award for Number the Stars.

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