Monday, June 14, 2010

Number the Stars

As promised, another book by Lois Lowry.

NUMBER THE STARS. Written by Lois Lowry.
Cover photograph of Anne Johnson.
Published by Yearling books, an imprint of Random House Children's books.
Winner of the John Newberry Medal.
Ages: 10+

Image: Courtesy Amazon.

Annemarie Johansen is a 10 yr old living in Denmark in 1943, at a time when the Nazis invaded her country. Her best friend is her neighbour, Ellen Rosen. Life is still pretty much normal, except for soldiers at every street corner. The girls have been warned by their mothers to avoid the soldiers on the way to school, and to not give too many answers to any questions.

Annemarie has two other sisters, the older Lise had died a few days before her wedding to Peter, who is still very close to the family, and who now works underground to help the Jews. The younger one is Kirsti.

Then one day in September, Ellen's mother sent her to the little shop where Mrs. Hirsch sells threads and buttons for a matching button for her old jacket. When the girls went there, they found the shop closed.

"There was a new padlock on the door, and a sign. But the sign was in German. They couldn't read the words."

This is the first ominous sign in the girls' world which was sheltered till now inspite of the German occupation of Denmark and small everyday privations (Kirsti longs for cupcakes with pink frosting and new, shiny shoes.) for almost two years. That night, Peter visits them, and Annemarie too is woken from her sleep and included in their talk. He tells the Johansens that the Germans have begun the rounding up of Jews. They still do not know to what purpose, but it is serious. Annemarie realises that her best friend, Ellen, too, is in danger, as the Rosens are Jewish, and it is up to them to help them. She remembers the incident where a boy on the street remarks to a German soldier that Denmark's king Christian X was safe on the streets because all of Denmark would protect him with their lives. "And now she- and all the Danes- were to be bodyguard for Ellen, and Ellen's parents, and all of Denmark's Jews."

But a few days later, on the Jewish New Year, when the Rosens came back from the synagogue, Mrs Rosen spoke hurriedly to Annemarie's mother,who came and told them that Ellen will be coming to stay with them for a few days, as her parents had to go away to visit some relatives. Annemarie is puzzled, but welcomes the idea of having her best friend stay.

The soldiers come in the night. And they ask-"Who is the dark-haired one?" Annemarie's father saves the day by showing baby photos of his three daughters : golden-haired Annemarie and Kirsti, and dark-haired Lise, with their names written on each photograph.

When they went, "Annemarie relaxed the clenched fingers of her right hand, which still clutched Ellen's necklace." (which she had yanked off Ellen's neck moments before they had entered the bedroom.) "She looked down, and saw that she had imprinted the Star of David into her palm."

The next day, Mrs Johansen took the girls with her to Gilleleje near Helsingor, where her brother Henrik was a fisherman, and had his own fishing trawler. Annemarie tells Ellen that it is on the sea-shore and that they could see Sweden from there.

Inspite of their worry and the danger they are in, the girls enjoy their visit to Gilleleje. They have to wait a few days during which Annemarie hears things which puzzle her. "Is the weather good for fishing?" When she knew that Uncle Henrik went fishing in all weathers. "There will be one case of cigarettes delivered. There are many more such cases in Copenhagen." When she knew very well that there had been no cigarettes since the beginning of the war. And the most puzzling- "There has been a death, and tonight your Great-aunt Birte will be resting in the living room, in her casket, before she is buried tomorrow. It is the old custom, you know, for the dead to rest at home, and their loved ones to be with them before burial." When she knew very well that there was no Great-aunt Birte!

When Annemarie confronts her uncle for both him and her mother lying to her, he asks her not to try and find out more than she is told, as "it is easier to be brave if you do not know everything.........We know only what we need to know."

Annemarie soon realises the wisdom in these words. Ellen's parents and some other fugitives (brought there by Peter who had arranged to hide them all this time) join them as mourners at Great-aunt Birte's funeral, so that the German soldiers do not become suspicious. Uncle Henrik prepares to ferry the Rosens along with some other Jews across to Sweden. They are taken in twos and threes to the boat in the dead of the night. In the confusion, Annemarie's mother stumbles in the dark on the way back and sprains her ankle. She panics when she realises that a very vital packet, without which all would be lost, has been left behind. It is now left to Annemarie to summon her courage and deliver the packet to the fugitives. Is she able to help her friends escape? Is she able to confront her fear of the dark woods, the German soldiers searching for the Jews, and their hounds? What is of such vital importance in the packet? And most important of all, is she able to return the Star of David to her friend Ellen when the war ends? Read the book to find out.

Lois Lowry has written a wonderful story of friendship in the face of very real danger. She gives us a peek into the everyday life of ordinary people who have had to do extraordinary things. Annemarie's innocence, her realisation of the grave danger and her courage comes across very vividly. The last chapter has the flavour of a thriller. In an afterword, the author tells us that the story has been based on real-life events at the time it has been set in, and has been dedicated to her friend Annelise Platt, who was a child living in Copenhagen during the German occupation. And the contents of the packet, too, are not something out of a sci-fi scenario, but based on fact.

This is one of the many books based on one of the biggest horrors of the last century, the Holocaust. It has been a topic by which I have been fascinated ever since I read the Diary of Anne Frank in my teens. I have been trying to find books suitable for A on this topic. Most books depict the horror in terms too explicit for her age. NUMBER THE STARS touches very lightly on it, when the soldiers are around. It focuses more on the friendships of the Jew and non-Jew characters, the commitment with which help is given and the trust with which it is received. It also ends on a hopeful note.

Sweden was a neutral country during World War 2, and received Jewish refugees from Finland, Norway and Denmark. Almost all of the 8000 Jews in Denmark at the time of German occupation were successfully helped across to Sweden by the Danes in their ferry and fishing boats. Sweden saved the maximum number of Jews during WW2.

Crossposted here.

7 comments:

ChoxBox said...

Have seen this one S. Thanks for the review, will pick it up next time.

Btw Hitler's Canary by Sandy Toksvig is another of this genre. Was read in my daughter's mixed age class (6-12 yrs) in Ldn and was much appreciated. Seen it in libes/bookshops here as well.

Plus of course there are a whole lot of Morpurgo books.

ChoxBox said...

*another in this genre.

Butter fingers!

Praba said...

One unique tale about WW 2 in a very different setting. I love how Lowry's stories revolve around friendship and relationships, during or post war.

It was through one of her lighter novels Gooney Bird Greene that I discovered the author first. http://www.amazon.com/Gooney-Bird-Greene-Lois-Lowry/dp/0440419603/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1276827928&sr=1-1

Thanks, Sandhya. Is this the first newbery being reviewed on ST? Yay, if it is so! :)

sandhya said...

Chox:Yeah about Michael Morpurgo books! I hope our local library has Hitler's Canary. Will look out for it.

Prabha:Yes. it is the first Newbery her. May their tribe increase.
And it is true what you say of Lowry's style. Love her books. Will look out for the one you have suggested.

sandhya said...

*here*, not her.

utbtkids said...

"it is easier to be brave if you do not know everything.........We know only what we need to know."

Very true and very touching in this context you described.

sandhya said...

@UTBT: Yes, isn't it?:)

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