~ Annemarie Johansen, "Number the Stars"
"Number the Stars" is a beautiful, thought-provoking and educational book, about the Nazi occupation of Denmark during WWII, and the way the Danish people came together to help Jewish families flee into Sweden for safety. My son and I read this together, for his homeschool bookclub.
Annemarie Johansen and Ellen Rosen are best friends living in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen in 1943. They're old enough to remember the time before the war, when food and clothing were plentiful, and people took vacations to the seaside. Now, there are shortages of everything, and German soldiers - with their guns and shiny boots - are stationed on every street corner.
When the local rabbi receives word that Danish Jews - including the Rosens - are to be "relocated," the community - including Annemarie's family - mobilizes, quietly and in secret, to help these families travel across the sea to Sweden, to safety. Suddenly, Ellen comes to live with the Johansens, as Annemarie's "sister," and both girls find themselves thrust into a nightmare where their lives are in danger, and a wrong word or glance could spell disaster. Annemarie's mother takes the girls to visit her brother, a fisherman with his own boat. Is this part of a plan to help Ellen and her family get to safety? And, more importantly, will Annemarie be brave enough to do what needs to be done, no matter how afraid she might be?
This is a beautiful book on so many levels. There is some really fascinating history here about how the people of Denmark, and their king, responded to the war, and the extraordinary bravery and courage of so many people. (As is true of the resistance efforts in every Nazi-occupied country). In reading this with my son, it was a good starting-point for a discussion about the Holocaust and WWII, and the idea of genocide. We didn't go into too much detail yet (he's only eight), but he knows the basics now, and the book gave us a good framework for our discussion.
It's also a wonderful book in terms of the storytelling. Obviously, the subject matter itself creates a great deal of tension and fear (at least for anyone familiar with the Holocaust). Historical stories of this type are really frightening for me, personally. King and Koontz create terrifying monsters, but at the end of the day I can reassure myself that what they've written is fictional. Not so with the Holocaust; anything horrible I can imagine really did happen to someone (and, surely, many, many horrible things I haven't imagined). That's scary. I do think it's worth mentioning, though, that this is something I, as an adult, experienced, while my son, who doesn't have a full understanding of that war, did not. It's not as though the book itself is written to be scary. It just is, because of the setting. Then, within this setting, Lowry did a great job of keeping me on the edge of my seat. Her chapter titles, featuring lines from the upcoming chapter, subtly foreshadowed enough to keep me dreading what might happen next (and sometimes her foreshadowing was just misleading enough to set up a BIG sigh of relief when the worst fears weren't realized). In spite of my fear, though, I found myself wanting to keep going, wanting to know what was going to happen next, hoping that this one story, at least, would have a happy ending.
Finally, it's a story of love and friendship, of courage and resourcefulness, and how the worst situations can bring out the best in people. The characters are wonderful, and believable, and I enjoyed every minute of this book (even when I was terrified about what might happen next). It's a truly beautiful, inspiring story. It has heartbreaking moments, but a satisfying ending, and an overall message of human goodness. Lowry doesn't shy away from showing many of the realities of the war - including death - but she does it in a way that is gentle and appropriate for children. I would highly recommend "Number the Stars" to people of just about any age, certainly from age eight onward. 5/5 stars.