Winner of the prestigious Newbery Medal for the best young adult literature, Number the Stars is about ten-year-old Annemarie Johansen living in Nazi-occupied Denmark with her Jewish best friend, Ellen Rosen. When the Nazis begin harassing the Jews of Denmark, Ellen’s family must go into hiding; Ellen assumes the identity of Annemarie’s deceased older sister. Annemarie must demonstrate bravery in order to protect her friend, Ellen, as the Nazis continually come close to discovering the truth about Ellen’s identity.
Like most young adult literature, the major theme of the book is coming-of-age. We slowly watch Annemarie mature in reaction to the horrible situation of the Nazi occupation, and the courage she must summon in order to save her friend. In the beginning, we see her running freely through the streets, which attracts the attention of German soldiers, despite being warned by Ellen that it is a bad idea. At the end, we see her braving the Nazis and attempting to outsmart them, no longer thinking like a little girl, but an adult.
A related motif that the book uses to express this coming-of-age theme is the difference between reality and fairy tales. Annemarie constantly reflects on how reality works differently than the fairy tales that her little sister, Kirsti, loves. The Nazis are a far-cry from fairy tale kings and queens; there is no magic in the world, only brutal reality. On the other hand, the fairy tales seem to be a part of reality. The chapter titled, “My Dogs Smell Meat!” at the end of book where a Nazi patrol catches her on the path in the woods, and almost unravels her mission to save her friend, is clearly reminiscent of Little Red Riding Hood. The Nazis are similar to wolves or fairytale monsters in general. So the book posits that the dichotomy between fairytales and reality is not so simple. The magic of Fairytales might be make believe, but like all art the problems and experience of fairy tales are a reflection of reality.
The book also explores the validity of the Noble Lie. The characters never lie, but they also do not always share the whole truth of events with their loved ones or the Nazis. This is done to ease people’s fear or because it might cause more suffering and harm if they spoke the whole truth. As part of her coming-of-age, Annemarie starts thinking about this form of half-truth, accepting its moral validity in certain situations.
It also bothered me slightly that the Jewish characters were such inactive participants in the plot. Not to mention many of their physical characteristics such as glasses, curly dark hair, etc. were fairly stereotypical. Since these are not depicted as negative qualities I have no problem with that in theory, but it would have been nice if Lowry had included a Jewish character that defies stereotypes with straight blonde hair who has stereotypical “Aryan” features like blue eyes perhaps. Such people do exist, you know. On the other hand, it didn’t bother me to the point that I was frothing at the mouth screaming; it was just a note that stuck in my head, while I read.
Considering the book is award-winning and beloved by young adult readers, I found it merely readable tackling it as an adult; a decent read, but nothing spectacular. On the other hand, it might be a great book to introduce readers to the Holocaust without going into the inhumanity and carnage that might be too intense for the age group.