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Literature / Number the Stars

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Number the Stars is a Historical Fiction children's novel by Lois Lowry.

The novel is about a Danish girl named Annemarie Johansen and her Jewish friend Ellen Rosen. They live in Copenhagen, Denmark during World War II. They are forced to move out into Annemarie's Uncle Henrik's home after Nazi soldiers demand to know the whereabouts of Ellen's Jewish family. Ellen, now disguised as Annemarie's dead sister Lise, joins the Johansen family in Uncle Henrik's home. Annemarie has to face her fears in order to save her friend.

It received the John Newbery Medal in 1990.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Kirsti. This actually winds up being helpful because her distracting tactics wind up amusing and charming the Nazi soldiers that bother the girls.
  • As the Good Book Says...: The title is taken from Psalm 147:4, in which the psalmist describes that God "tells the number of the stars [and] calls them each by name". During the time that the Johansen family is sheltering the Rosen family in Uncle Henrik's house and staging "Great-Aunt Birte's wake", Peter reads a passage from the same psalm.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Ellen and her family survive the Holocaust, as do other Danish-Jewish families. Peter dies and is shot, however, and the Johansens can only leave flowers at an unmarked grave and hope it's his.
  • Bookends: In the beginning, Annemarie is racing with Ellen on the street. Near the end, she is running to deliver a package that will help the Rosens escape.
  • Casual Danger Dialogue: Annemarie delivers the handkerchief to her uncle, apologizing that Nazis' dogs ate the "bread" that was supposed to be his lunch. Uncle Henrik is more relieved that she's okay and that the handkerchief means that none of the refugees will be found. He then grins and tells her he hopes that the dogs choked on the loaf.
  • Cheating with the Milkman: When the Nazis search the Johansens, Ellen is pretending to be Annemarie's sister. She has dark hair that is different from the others' blond hair, so the Nazis ask if they got her from the milkman.
  • Clothing-Concealed Injury: Prior to the beginning of the book, Peter was shot in the arm by the Nazis when they raided a Resistance meeting that he and Lise were attending. They both made it out of the building, but the police ran over Lise in a car. Peter had to wear a thick coat to hide his bandaged arm (and a hat to hide his distinctive red hair) when he attended Lise's funeral to keep any of the policemen in attendance from recognizing him as one of the escaped Resistance members.
  • Coffin Contraband: A coffin loaded with essential supplies for Danish-born Jewish refugees is used in order to avoid being seized by Nazi soldiers. There was a close encounter with one until the soldier was "advised" that the coffin bore the dead victim of typhus.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: When hiding with the Johansens, Ellen takes on the name of their deceased daughter, Lise. A Nazi officer becomes suspicious when he sees that Ellen has dark hair while her "parents" and "sisters" are blonde, but Mr. and Mrs. Johansen trick him by showing him a family photo of the real Lise as a baby, who had dark hair then.
  • Death by Newbery Medal: Peter dies during the time skip, and Lise died in the backstory when a Nazi car struck her. However, Ellen and other Danish Jews survive and are evacuated.
  • Did Not Die That Way: We are told that Annemarie's older sister Lise was killed when she was hit by a car near the beginning of the Nazi occupation of Denmark. At the end of the book, Annemarie's parents tell her the truth: Lise was a member of La Résistance. She was hit by a car, but it was a car driven by Nazis who deliberately ran her down as she tried to flee from them.
  • Dishonored Dead: Of the undeserved variety. Peter and the other Resistance members are executed by the Nazis and buried in graves marked only with numbers. After his death, Annemarie and her family go to the execution site and lay flowers on the ground for him.
  • Double-Meaning Title: The title references the Star of David badges used by the Nazi regime to identify Jews, but also alludes to a famous passage from the Book of Genesis about God's covenant with Abraham and the birth of the Jewish people ("Look toward the heavens and number the stars, if you are able to, and so shall your descendants be"). It might be a Triple-Meaning Title because it also references Psalm 147:4 (see As the Good Book Says...).
  • Dramatic Necklace Removal: The Nazis are coming, and Annemarie realizes that Ellen still has her Star of David necklace on. Ellen starts to panic because she never takes it off and can't remember how to open it, so Annemarie yanks it off with all her strength, breaking it. In the end, she asks her father to fix it so she may wear it herself until Ellen comes back.
  • Dye or Die: Peter has red hair, so he must wear a hat to keep the Nazis from discovering him.
  • Exact Words: Annemarie was told that her older sister Lise was killed in a car accident. At the end, Annemarie's parents reveal that Lise was actually murdered by the Nazis during a raid on a secret Danish resistance meeting. They ran her down in their car, so Annemarie's parents weren't technically lying to her. The only consolation Annemarie has is that at least Lise wasn't shot in public, the way Lise's fiancé Peter was.
  • Guile Hero: Annemarie's parents are both quick-thinking and brilliant when dealing with the Nazi soldiers. When they ask why Ellen is brown-haired while Kirsti and Annemarie are blonde, Mr. Johansen just shows him baby pictures of his deceased daughter, Lise—who was luckily born with brown hair. Annemarie realizes he even had the foresight to angrily rip the picture out of the album because the true Lise's birthdate was written on the bottom of the picture, and she was much older than Ellen appears to be. Mrs. Johansen later uses a Bugs Bunny-level reversal of opinion to keep from having to open the casket holding the Jewish refugees' supplies, by talking about how much she longed to give "Great-Aunt Birte" a final kiss goodbye even though the doctor advised a closed casket due to her dying of typhus.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: The whole Johansen family, with their blond hair and good nature. It is, however, Lise's involvement in the Danish Resistance along with Annemarie and her parents helping the Rosen family escape the Nazis that cement their status of bearing golden hearts.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Lise's involvement in the Danish Resistance makes her a hero, and she was engaged to Peter.
  • Impersonation Gambit: The Jewish Ellen goes under the guise of Lise to avoid capture.
  • Kick the Dog: The Nazis make a habit out of this. The soldiers that intrude on the apartment tear up the photo of Lise (the real Lise) after they see her dark curls, and are convinced that Ellen is her. It especially hurts in that Lise died two years ago.
  • La Résistance: The Danish Resistance.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Lise died because she was hit by a car. In the end, it is revealed that she was intentionally hit by the Nazis because she was part of La Résistance.
  • Men Can't Keep House: Annemarie's mother frequently teases Uncle Henrik about his inability to keep his house clean, saying he needs to get married already so a wife could help him.
  • "Not Making This Up" Disclaimer: Lois Lowry in the afterword confirms that the handkerchief used to stop the Nazi dogs was a real invention, of rabbit blood and cocaine, to destroy their sense of smell.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Annemarie and Mrs. Johansen do this when dealing with the Nazis to make themselves Beneath Suspicion.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Kirsti's real name is Kirsten, which is revealed only once during the scene where the baby photos of the Johansen girls are revealed.
  • Poverty Food: Every night since the Nazis came, the Johansens have had potatoes for dinner and little else, along with hot water flavored with herbs as a substitute for coffee and tea. Kirsti wishes for yellow cupcakes with pink frosting.
  • Precious Photo: The Johansens have one of Lise from when she was a baby with dark hair, which they show to a Nazi officer to "prove" that Ellen is their "daughter". It gets torn into shreds by the officer, but it does its job.
  • Title Drop: During the fake funeral, Peter reads from Psalm 147, which describes God as "He Who numbers the stars one by one."
  • Together in Death: The night before his execution, Peter writes a letter to the Johansens, asking to be buried besides Lise, his deceased fiancée. Unfortunately, his request cannot be fulfilled because the Nazis refuse to return the bodies of the executed resistance fighters and simply bury them in numbered graves.
  • Underground Railroad: Helping the Jews hide or escape from the Nazis.
  • Would Hit a Girl: A German soldier investigating the supposed funeral slaps Mrs. Johansen when she tells him not to go near the coffin (which was hiding a secret in it).
  • You Don't Want to Catch This: A casket is used to hold the supplies of the Jews in hiding. A German soldier comes in and they say that they are holding a funeral for "Great-Aunt Birte". The soldier tells them to open the casket, but Annemarie's mother says that "Great-Aunt Birte" died of typhus, and the doctor warned them against exposure.