Saturday, May 7, 2011

Number the Stars

Written By: Lois Lowry

Set in Copenhagen, Denmark during World War II, author Lois Lowry takes readers back to a time of unimaginable sadness—a time that would later be known as The Holocaust.  Lowry immersed herself in the culture of Denmark and researched countless hours in order to write the compelling historical fiction novel, Number the Stars—a story about a young Danish girl and her family’s involvement with helping Jews to escape to Sweden into freedom.

Lowry included many subtleties throughout the book that helped to bring the setting to life and allowed readers to visualize the characters, time period, and location.  She helps readers to realize that the War affected everyone in some way, shape, or form.  We immediately sense the presence of German soldiers in Copenhagen.  When first confronted with one of the soldiers, Annemarie comments on his Danish.  She thinks, “Three years they’ve been in our country, and still they can’t speak our language.”  This subtle thought helps us to realize that the War has been going on long before the first page of the written book.  It gives us a sense of how long the citizens of Denmark had to endure the intrusion of the Germans.  It also helps us to understand the levels of sacrifice within the community.

In order to further comprehend the levels of sacrifice, Lowry incorporates rationing by including examples such as, “There had been no real coffee in Copenhagen since the beginning of the Nazi occupation.  Not even any real tea.  The mothers sipped at hot water flavored with herbs.”  Also, “There hasn’t been any butter, or sugar for cupcakes, for a long time.  A year, at least.”  At one point, Kirsti, Annemarie’s younger sister, outgrew her shoes and needed a new pair.  She did not approve of her new shoes made of fish skin, but her mother explains, “You know there’s no leather anymore…But they’ve found a way to make shoes out of fish skin.  I don’t think these are too ugly.” 

In an article written to explain her journey of writing Number the Stars, Lowry discusses how after she had done all of her research, written all of the words, and thought the book was almost complete, she realized that it was not at all complete.  She realized that she needed to go back to Denmark.  She immersed herself in the culture of Denmark and became familiar with the sights, sounds, and smells of Copenhagen.  In fact, she mentions how she took a train north from Copenhagen and “…stood on the coast, looked across to Sweden, and smelled the air and sea.”  By the time her trip was up, she said that she actually felt quite Danish.  When she returned home, she states, “I came home and rewrote the entire book.  Same characters: same plot.  But now it had the real Denmark in it.”

Lowry strongly develops the characters of Number the Stars so that readers are emotionally engaged with the overall themes of the book as well as with the characters themselves.  Themes of friendship, strength, unity, and courage prevail throughout.  The protagonist, Annemarie, is a young girl of ten when the story begins.  Annemarie is aware of the war going on around her, but in the beginning, she believes her family and their dear friends, the Rosens, are safe.  Throughout the novel, we notice the development of Annemarie as well as her loss of innocence through her courage, strong will to help her friend, and need for understanding of the events going on around her.  For example, Annemarie questions why the adults are being secretive and keeping things from her.  In a conversation with her Uncle, she realizes that everyone is on a, “need-to-know” basis during the war and this makes it easier to be brave.  She finds truth in this when she is needed to deliver an important package to her Uncle and gets stopped by German soldiers.

Lowry’s style of language sets the mood for the story by creating tension and evoking emotions.  She includes strong dialogue between the characters, which helps readers to become more engaged.  Through Lowry’s strong development of characters and engaging plot, readers cannot help but turn pages quickly in hopes that everything will be alright.

Although Lowry did not grow up in Copenhagen, she wrote her story in such a way that one would believe she was.  One of Lowry’s close friends, Annelise, grew up in Copenhagen during the years of World War II.  Annelise shared stories with Lowry about her daily life—her family, their home, school days, clothing styles, and the games she played.  Annelise told Lowry many stories of her childhood and gave Lowry the perspective she needed to write a story that combined historical events with the day-to-day living of a young girl and her family.  For example, the second sentence of the book reads, “Annemarie adjusted the thick leather pack on her back so that her schoolbooks balanced evenly.”  Lowry learned from her close friend that a little girl would have carried her schoolbooks in a stiff leather knapsack.

Lowry also met another woman in Copenhagen, Kirsten Krogh, who was a young bride during the German occupation and had been involved in the Resistance movement along with her husband in the Resistance movement.  Through her, Lowry learned even more of the fine details of Copenhagen and Denmark—details that would make her book culturally vivid.  For example, Kirsten told Lowry about the flowers that would bloom in autumn along the Danish coast and how a mother would read aloud, Gone with the Wind to her children.  All of these small details were in the book.

As told from the perspective of Annemarie, Lowry is careful to incorporate details into the setting that are relatable to a child.  For example, when Lowry asked Annelese to describe the German soldiers she said, “I remember the high shiny boots.”  Lowry describes the soldiers in the book, “There were two sets of cold eyes glaring at her, and four tall shiny boots planted firmly on the sidewalk, blocking her path home.”

In her Afterword of the novel, Lowry separates fact from fiction.  Annemarie, although based on her friend Annelise, is a fictional character.  Lowry goes on to discuss the integrity of the Danish people under the leadership of King Christian X and how the reasons for Denmark’s involvement in the war were the same as what Annemarie’s father had told her, “The country was small and undefended, with no army of any size.”

I was surprised to find out the truth behind the handkerchief delivered to Uncle Henrik.  There was a strong powder created out of dried rabbit’s blood and cocaine that permeated these special handkerchiefs that were created to lure German dogs away from the sent of people by temporarily destroying their sense of smell.  It was fascinating to learn that such a thing is true and saved so many lives. 

I feel confident in saying that Lois Lowry did extensive research prior to writing the historical fiction novel, Number the Stars.  Without having read Lowry’s acceptance speech and Lowry’s reflection on writing the novel, I may not have known just how detailed and accurate Lowry’s account of a child’s perspective during World War II was.  As a result, I feel as though the compelling story of Annemarie and her family and their determination and courage in saving the Jews is one that Lowry has earned the right to tell.

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