Feb 5, 2008

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (and a quick hello)

Number the Stars is the story of Annemarie, a ten-year-old girl living in Denmark in 1943. Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen, is Jewish, and the book tells how Annemarie’s family helps Ellen and her family escape to Sweden, a country that remained neutral and free of Nazi occupation during the war.

Number the Stars tells a simple but very effective story. I knew absolutely nothing about the rescue of the Danish Jews, but, as Lois Lowry explains in the afterword, although this story is fictional, the events it recounts really did happen to thousands of families. During the war, about eight thousand Jews were evacuated to Sweden, and as a result, over 80% of the Danish Jews survived the Holocaust.

I loved this book because it tells this story in such a human way. It reminded me of why I picked WW2 as my theme for the Themed Reading Challenge. War stories tend to show humans at their very worst, but they also can show them at their very best. And they remind us that, uncomfortable as the fact may be, both the best and the worst are part of the range of being human.

This book is about the courage of ordinary people. It’s about how heroes are people just like you and me, who did the right thing at the right moment even though they were afraid. At some point in the book, Annemarie thinks:
"It was only in the fairy tales that people were called upon to be so brave, to die for one another. Not in real-life Denmark. Oh, there were the soldiers; that was true. And the courageous Resistence leaders, who sometimes lost their lives; that was true, too.

But ordinary people like the Rosens and the Johansens? Annemarie admitted to herself, snuggling there in the quiet dark, that she was glad to be an ordinary person who would never be called upon for courage."

Of course, as the story unfolds she is proven wrong. And stories like this are inspiring exactly because they show that doing something like this is not superhuman, or out of reach for ordinary people. It’s something we can all do.

Number the Stars is so powerful because it doesn’t say that the people from Denmark are better than, say, the people from Poland because of how they behaved in the War. What it does say is that ordinary people can do something to put a stop to this sort of horror. Some circumstances will make taking action easier, while others will make it harder. Trying to understand the circumstances will make it easier for us to understand the people who get caught up in them.

Reading this book I was reminded of a scene in one of my favourite books, Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s a gut-wrenching scene told from the perspective of a Polish man—in his small town, the Nazis gathered the whole population in front of the church and started asking people who among them is Jewish. The only Jewish person there is the man’s best friend. Every time the Nazi officers ask the question and don’t get an answer, they shoot a random person. The man’s whole family is there, and he knows they can be shot next. He knows he himself can be shot next. So he gives his best friend away. It’s a terrible thing, of course, but what makes that scene in the book an extraordinary piece of writing is the fact that it shows how well the man, in his fear, in his despair, knows that it is a terrible thing. It is easy to condemn someone in that situation, but it’s only by trying to understand them that we can ensure that things like this don’t keep on happening.

In the same way that Everything is Illuminated humanizes those who were weak, Number the Stars humanizes those who were strong. And it shows both the courage of those who did something and the courage of those who stayed at home. Annemarie’s father, for example, couldn’t take part in the rescue, but he is not less a person than those who were directly involved. In his own way, he was doing his part too. Those who work quietly in the background are as valuable as those who are more visibly heroic.

This is a truly great book, and I strongly recommend it to children and adults alike.

Other Blog Reviews:
Nothing of Importance
Rhinoa's Ramblings
Maw Books

I wish I had the time to write a proper post, visit your blogs, and reply to comments before going off again today. Scotland was wonderful, and I can't wait to share my pictures and impressions. I managed to write this because I ended up not being able to fit Powers in my bag, and Number the Stars is such a quick read that I ran out of book to read on my very first evening in Inverness. So I spent the rest of the long evening writing my thoughts on it. Then the following day I caved and bought a book, but that's a whole other story, best told at another time :P

Anyway, I hope everyone is doing well, and I will catch up on your blogs sometime soon.

16 comments:

  1. Yay for book buying weaknesses! I'm glad you had a fun time away and look forward to hearing about it and seeing your photos.

    I really love Lois Lowry. I like the simple way she tells stories yet makes them entertaining and draw you along with them. If you liked this you will love The Giver as well.

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  2. I know I have this in my TBR pile. Time to pull it out and move it to the front of the line. Thanks for the great review.

    Can't wait to see the pictures!

    cjh

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  3. Look forward to those pictures!

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  4. I have this scheduled to read for the girls homeschooling this year :) I can't wait to read it!

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  5. I read this a while back. I liked it. Your review is good.

    BTW, I have tagged you for a meme!! You will like it!

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  6. I agree with Rhinoa: Yay for book buying weakness! lol...

    What a wonderful review Nymeth...you write such beautiful reviews. I've been wanting to read some more Lowry for a long time and this may be the one. Especially after watching Everything is Illuminated, I'm in the mood to read some Jewish literature. I really want to read the book, Everything is Illuminated even more now too after your comments! What an amazing story.

    Glad you had fun on your trip! Can't wait to hear all about it!

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  7. I bought this one for Annie a month or so ago, but neither of us has read it yet. I have to admit that I've been a bit reluctant. Not because I think I won't like it, as I'm certain I will. But because I'm so sure it's going to be a very emotional experience. This is a totally ridiculous reason, of course, because I love nothing more than a book that makes me feel deeply...but sometimes I hesitate nonetheless. Okay, I realize that must have made absolutely no sense, so I'll move on to other subjects...like book buying. Personally, I don't think that purchase qualified as a "weakness"...come on, being without a book to read is like torture. So unless you're a masochist, I think this particular purchase qualifies as a necessity!

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  8. What a great review. I have always heard of this book, but never really knew what it was about. Thanks.

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  9. I have a relatively poor memory, but I can still vividly remember this book from 4th grade (about 17 years ago--wow, that makes me feel old!!). Anyway, thanks for the great review. This is one that I should pick up again, and I've wanted to since I finished The Giver a few weeks ago.

    Will you be reading The Book Thief for this themed challenge? I certainly hope you can fit it in soon.

    Have a fabulous trip!

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  10. Great review, Nymeth! And I can't wait to see your pics!!! BTW, you're tagged! ;)

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  11. Fantastic review! I've had this book on my wishlist for some time. The only other Lowry I've read is The Giver, and this one seems like it would be another good offering.

    Glad you had fun on your trip! Bring on the pics!

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  12. What a great review! I haven't read this book in a long time, but I think it was my introduction to learning anything about WWII. I really need to reread it.

    I'm glad to hear you're having a fun time on your trip!

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  13. Rhinoa: I liked the way she told this story a lot, and I'm really looking forward to reading The Giver!

    CJ: I hope you enjoy it!

    Carl: They should be up tomorrow

    Boudicca: I hope both you and your girls enjoy it. It's definitely a book from which a lot can be learned!

    guatami: Thanks! And thanks for tagging me. I'll go check out the meme soon!

    Chris: Thank you :) It really is an amazing story...I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

    Debi: That actually makes perfect sense. Whenever I know a book will demand a lot from me emotionally I need to pick the right time for it... even though being moved by books is, like you said, a good thing. But I guess it's something we have to be ready for. And you're right, not having a book to read IS torture, especially when long coach rides and hours waiting at the airport are involved.

    Jeane: Thank you! I didn't know what this one was about either until I read some blog reviews a while ago.

    Trish: I can see this one sticking with me for a long time too. And yes, I'm reading The Book Thief for this challenge. I can't wait to get to it!

    Melody: Thanks for tagging me! I'm going to go take a look at the meme soon.

    Andi: Thank you! I really really want to read The Giver next. The pics will be posted very soon!

    Kim L: Thanks! I think it's great that so many people read this one as children...it's definitely an eye-opener about WWII.

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  14. I've chosen "books by Lois Lowry" for my theme in the Themed Reading Challenge so I'll eventually be reading Number the Stars. Thanks for the great review!

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  15. I love Lois Lowry's books, and this one is another powerful one to read with students. You might be interested in listening to her talk about her writing and about this book at this video link:
    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-3121154942688194965.

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  16. I loved your review - you brought everything back fresh in my mind, everything I loved about this book. Normally I shy away from reading most books about the holocaust (I'm still recovering from reading Anne Frank's diary back in the 6th grade), but Lowry is a writer I trust not to make me want to slit my wrists at the end of a book, and I'm glad I did (trust her, I mean - not slit my wrists!).

    I've also been enjoying reading about your travels - love the pics!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.