In "Number the Stars," Lois Lowry intertwines elements of fairy tales with a story of how a family in Denmark managed to protect their Jewish friends from the Gestapo. The elements of fiction in "Number the Stars" interact in unique ways. The plot is essentially endemic to 1943 Copenhagen, while the characters meditate on the necessity of bravery and loyalty precisely because those qualities are necessary for them to succeed in evading the Nazi soldiers.
Annemarie Johansen, an introspective ten-year-old girl, serves as the protagonist in Number the Stars. Annemarie lives in Copenhagen with her parents and younger sister. She frequently reflects on the nature of bravery at it applies to fairy tales and to the people she knows, particularly to Peter, the fiance of her deceased sister, Lise. Like her parents and her uncle Henrik, Peter takes an active role in helping their Jewish friends escape the Gestapo. Her best friend, Ellen Rosen, is an imaginative, ambitious girl of Jewish ancestry. Ellen understands the dangers she faces due to her heritage and must conceal her identity from Nazi soldiers. Though their cruelty may be toned down for the young audience of "Number the Stars," the Nazis are still quite heartless. They frequently interrogate the characters in an attempt to capture all Jewish citizens, often resorting to physical violence and theft in their frustration.
The novel opens on the streets of Copenhagen. Formerly a peaceful, prosperous city, Copenhagen becomes a place where concealment is a necessity and paranoia is the norm when the Nazis invade. The Rosens and Johansens live in the same building in a middle-class neighborhood, where they struggle with rations and anxiety over the presence of Nazi soldiers. Though they have lived in the building for years, this location loses its feeling of safety. To escape, the Rosens flee to Gilleleje, a beautiful shoreline town boasting an atmosphere so clear that the girls can see Sweden in the distance. Annemarie must realize her potential for bravery in the forest of Gilleleje. She imagines the forest as a mythic barrier through which she must pass to ensure the Rosens and other persecuted Copenhagen citizens escape to Sweden.
After three years of German occupation, the atmosphere of Copenhagen becomes one of danger rather than familiarity. Annemarie and her best friend Ellen are accosted by Nazi soldiers on the streets. The Rosens escape first, leaving Ellen with the Johansens. Ellen and Annemarie hide Ellen's Star of David necklace. The Johansens and Ellen travel to Gilleleje to meet with Henrik, the Rosens and Peter. Annemarie's mother injures her ankle and is unable to deliver a crucial package to Henrik. She gives the package to Annemarie instead, concealing it in a basket. When the soldiers and their dogs stop her, Annemarie explains that she is bringing food to her uncle. They mock her and steal the food, discovering the package in the bottom of the basket. It contains only a handkerchief. They allow their dogs to smell the handkerchief and leave. Though Annemarie cries and otherwise acts the part of an indignant little girl, she has succeeded in her task, in part because she didn't understand the importance of it. Later, Henrik explains to her that the handkerchief contained an agent that blocked the dogs' ability to smell, meaning they would be unable to detect the Rosens and other families on the boats. When the war ends, Annemarie finds out that her sister was in fact killed by the Germans. She puts on Ellen's necklace and waits for the Rosens to return.
Annemarie frequently sees Peter, her parents, the Rosens and other adults act courageously even in the face of overwhelming danger, illustrated the theme of bravery that pervades "Number the Stars." She questions her own ability to place herself in danger to save others. When she does so at the end of the novel, she doesn't quite understand the importance or purpose of her task, but she fulfills her duties, saving her best friend and countless others in the process. Her ignorance is no accident; Lois Lowry notes that her novel is very much concerned with concealment and fabrication as a means of evading the enemy; indeed, Annemarie" and her family must lie to protect the lives of others." At times, the characters must conceal the truth even from each other. Henrik points out that speaking the truth would put everyone in danger, and that in some cases lying or concealing knowledge is the only way to protect their friends from the Nazis. This theme of concealment and fabrication is evident both in the form of deliberate falsehoods and in the numerous references to the most basic, seemingly innocuous forms of fiction, fairy tales.
- Brand X Pictures/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images