Number the Stars Summary

Lois Lowry

Number the Stars

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Number the Stars Summary

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Number the Stars is a 1989 children’s novel written by Lois Lowry about the experiences of Annemarie Johansen, a 10-year-old Danish girl, living in Copenhagen during World War II. The novel follows Annemarie and her family as they attempt to save their Jewish friends, the Rosens, from being sent to a Nazi concentration camp. The novel was highly critically acclaimed at the time of its release and won the 1990 Newbery Medal for children’s literature.

The year is 1943, and the Nazi army has occupied Denmark. Food and supplies have been rationed, and everyday items like butter, coffee, heat, and electricity are hard to come by. German soldiers patrol the streets to try to catch Jews and members of the Danish Resistance. Annemarie races her Jewish friend, Ellen Rosen, home from school while her younger sister, 5-year-old Kirsti, trails behind. The girls are stopped by two German soldiers who ask them why they are running and question them about their ethnic backgrounds. One of them tries to touch Kirsti’s hair, but she slaps his hand away. The soldiers warn the girls not to run like hoodlums, and let them go.

Annemarie’s mother, Mrs. Johansen, is concerned when Kirsti tells her what happened, and advises the girls to take a different route to school to avoid the soldiers. We learn that Annemarie also had an older sister, Lise, who was hit by a car and died two weeks before her wedding. Lise’s former fiancé, Peter Neilsen, comes to visit the family and brings them seashells and beer as a gift. Annemarie learns that Peter is a member of the Resistance, and that he goes to the seashore often to help Jews escape to Sweden, a neutral country. Her father tells her that the Nazis have obtained a list of all the Jews who live in Copenhagen and are planning to deport them to camps. Mr. and Mrs. Rosen go to a safe place with Peter, while Ellen stays with the Johansens and pretends to be Lise.

One morning, Nazi soldiers come to the Johansens’ apartment and ask them if they know where the Rosens are. Annemarie quickly rips Ellen’s Star of David necklace off her neck and hides it. The Nazis get suspicious when they notice that Ellen has dark hair, unlike the Johansens who all have blonde hair. To convince the soldiers that Ellen is his daughter, Mr. Johansen shows them a baby picture of Lise, who had dark hair as a child. The Nazis accept the explanation and leave.

The next day, the Johansens and Ellen go to the house of Annemarie’s Uncle Henrik, who lives in a village just across the sea from Sweden. They are reunited with Peter and Ellen’s parents there. Uncle Henrik announces that Annemarie’s Great-Aunt Birte has died, and that her funeral will be held at his house. A closed casket is placed in the middle of Henrik’s living room. Annemarie realizes that she doesn’t really have a Great-Aunt Birte, and that the casket and funeral are part of a plan to help the Rosens and other Jewish refugees escape to Sweden. When the refugees come to the house for the fake funeral, Henrik leaves to go down to the harbor. During the funeral, Nazi soldiers come to the house and ask the Johansens why the casket is closed. Mrs. Johansen replies that Birte died of typhoid, a contagious disease, and offers to open the casket. The Nazis slap her and leave.

Peter reads a psalm out loud from the Bible just in case the Nazi soldiers are still listening outside. The psalm is about how God numbered all the stars, and helped the people of Israel heal their wounds. After reading the psalm, he opens the casket, which is full of warm coats and blankets for the Jewish refugees to take with them to Sweden. He explains that he will lead the first group of people to the harbor, where Henrik will meet them and take them across the sea in his fishing boat. Twenty minutes later, Mrs. Johansen will do the same with the Rosens. Peter gives Mr. Rosen a packet to take to Henrik.

Annemarie says goodbye to Ellen, who promises that she will return to Denmark one day. The Rosens leave with Mrs. Johansen. A couple of hours later, Annemarie opens the door to find her mother crawling back to the house with an injured ankle. She explains that she tripped over a root on the way back from the harbor. As Annemarie helps her mother into the house, they notice the packet that Mr. Rosen was supposed to deliver to Henrik lying on the steps. Mrs. Johansen does not tell Annemarie the contents of the packet, but says that it is crucial to their plans. She urges Annemarie to put the packet in a lunch basket and take it to Henrik at the harbor.

On the way, Annemarie is stopped by Nazi soldiers. She tells them she is bringing lunch to her uncle. The soldiers discover the packet when they search the basket, but all it contains is a white handkerchief. They let Annemarie pass. When she gets down to the harbor, Henrik is relieved to see her and says that she saved the whole mission. He later explains that the handkerchief was soaked with a drug that causes dogs to lose their sense of smell; that way, the Nazi dogs that come to inspect the boat would not smell the refugees hiding there. Annemarie learns that the Rosens have successfully escaped to Sweden.

Two years later, the war ends and Denmark is free again. Annemarie reveals that Peter was caught by the Nazis and executed in the town square a few months before. She learns from her parents that Lise was also a member of the Resistance, and that Nazi soldiers had deliberately hit and killed her with their car as she was running away from them. Annemarie finds the Star of David necklace that she ripped from Ellen’s neck and decides to repair the clasp and wear it herself until Ellen returns to Denmark.

The central themes of Number the Stars are loyalty, friendship, and courage. The novel shows how dangerous times require everyday people to become heroes. The novel is also an important coming-of-age tale. Over the course of the story, Annemarie matures and becomes more aware of the world that she lives in and how she must be brave to protect those that she cares about.