“She was glad to be an ordinary person who would never be called upon for courage.”
The year is 1943. Life for ten-year-old Annemarie Johansen and her best friend Ellen Rosen is a lot different from yours and mine. Food shortages sweep across Denmark, soldiers perch on every streetcorner, and being a Jew like Ellen is very dangerous. When Ellen’s parents catch wind of the coming Jew “relocation,” Annemarie’s family takes it upon themselves to help the Rosens. Though Annemarie is young, she desperately wants to know the adults’ secrets. Those secrets may cost her, and many other’s, life.
I read this book when I was young, probably in elementary school. Though I couldn’t remember the details, the title stuck in my head all these years. I thought taking a Children’s Lit course would be a great excuse to revisit the novel and finally recall the story. After having read it as an adult, I can say my childhood self definitely liked this novel a lot more than my 20-year-old self does. Though the novel was at times suspenseful and interesting, it was also equal parts slow and boring. There wasn’t a whole lot going on. So while I wasn’t exactly hooked by the plot, I also didn’t hate it. Keep in mind this is a children’s book. There are children’s books that reel me in and catch me hook, line, and sinker (why am I using fishing references?), and there are children’s books that my adult-self just can’t get into — this one fits into the latter category; however, I appreciate the novel for what it is: a fictitious book to ease children into the topic of war and the Holocaust.
The genocide of the Jews and the destruction of entire countries is a heavy-handed topic for adults, let alone children. There’s always been the question of, “At what age do we introduce the Holocaust to children?” I think the answer is subjective and depends on the child. There are self-aware and curious children, like Annemarie, who are able to be slowly submerged in these kinds of topics; the opposite is also true, that there are children who aren’t ready at such young ages, mostly because they don’t understand or can’t take these topics seriously. I think every child should eventually be introduced to the Holocaust, though, and I believe Number the Stars is a great book to do so. Just because my adult-self didn’t find it interesting, doesn’t mean my childhood-self also hated it. To be honest, I think the title of the novel stuck in my head for so long because I did like it. And I think other children will like it, too. And, like I said, it’s a good introductory novel to Holocaust lit.
The story is told in third-person, but the novel focuses on Annemarie Johansen. Though only ten years old, she is quite self-aware and mature. Growing up during World War II will do that to a person, I assume. Compared to her younger, wilder sister, Kirsti, Annemarie was usually calm and composed, and quite intelligent. I liked her, and I like to think I was like that at her age (though I doubt I was).
Ellen, Annemarie’s Jewish friend, was not as big a character as I thought she should be. She was very quiet, reserved, and fearful, though I imagine many Jews were during such a terrible time. I thought maybe she’d be more of a main character, but she kind of faded into the background, even though she was in most of the scenes. I suppose the novel focused heavily on Annemarie rather than anyone else, and that’s okay, I just wish I would have seen a little more from Ellen.
The mystery behind Peter and Lise was probably most interesting to me as an adult. Though I understood Peter’s role even while Annemarie did not, Lise remained a mystery to me until the end. I think it is Peter (and the real people like him during the war) who the novel is truly written about, and after reading Lowry’s Afterword, I am certain of it.
The only other work written by Lowry I’ve read is The Giver, which I can’t say is my favorite book. In fact, I pretend its sequels don’t even exist because I hate the “true” ending so much. I guess you could say I’m not the biggest Lois Lowry fan, but I don’t dislike her by any means.
(Fun fact: I thought Lois Lowry was a man when I was a child because I’d never heard the name Lois before.)
So, no, Lowry isn’t my favorite writer. I thought there was too much sensory detail, especially for a children’s book. I do appreciate her for taking such a tough topic and making it easy to read, and for giving children a way to be eased into it. I’d have to say my favorite part of the book, though, was in the Afterword, and it’s not even Lowry’s writing. It’s a letter from the real-life man who inspired the character of Peter. Kim Malthe-Bruun was a Resistance leader in Denmark during the war who was eventually captured and shot by the Nazis. Just one day before he was shot, he wrote a letter to his mother, and I think it’s crucial not only for its time, but for today and the future and everything to come:
“…and I want you all to remember — that you must not dream yourselves back to the times before the war, but the dream for you all, young and old, must be to create an ideal of human decency, and not a narrow-minded and prejudiced one. That is the great gift our country hungers for, something every little peasant boy can look forward to, and with pleasure feel he is a part of — something he can work and fight for.”
This truly resonated with me, and I think I can speak for many people, especially in America right now, that this is something we need to be reminded of. This is how we should live our lives. THIS is how our leaders should act. This isn’t a political statement. This is common sense and human decency.