Number the Stars: Summary, Characters & Setting

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  • 3:14 Characters
  • 5:28 Setting
  • 6:30 Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Francesca Marinaro

Francesca M. Marinaro has a PhD in English from the University of Florida and has been teaching English composition and Literature since 2007.

Lois Lowry's Newberry Award-winning children's novel, Number the Stars, is a well-known story about a young girl's experiences in Nazi-occupied Denmark during World War II. This lesson will introduce you to the plot and characters and finish with a quiz to test your knowledge.

Plot Summary

Set in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen, Denmark, the book Number the Stars is a historical children's novel written by Lois Lowry and first published in 1989. This novel tells the story of the Yohansen and Rosen families, particularly the close friendship between the story's heroine, 10-year-old Annemarie Yohansen and Ellen Rosen. The girls have grown up together in the same apartment building and have been best friends all their lives. The novel explores the events leading to the Holocaust and the treatment of the Jewish people. When the Nazis begin to force the Jewish people into the concentration camps, which they call 'relocating' in the story, the Rosens ask the Yohansens, who are Lutherans, to take care of Ellen so they can go into hiding and will send for her when they can.

While Ellen is with the Yohansens, Nazi soldiers come looking for her and her parents, and she pretends, on the instructions of Mr. Yohansen (whom she calls Papa) to be Annemarie's sister Lize, who had died three years ago before the story begins. The next morning, Mrs. Yohansen, Mama, decides to take the girls to her brother Henrik's farm on the Danish coast, leaving Papa behind to keep up appearances and make it look like Mama and the girls have just gone on a vacation. When they arrive at Uncle Henrik's, Annemarie learns that Uncle Henrik, a fisherman, has been helping to smuggle Jewish people across the sea to Sweden (which the Nazis haven't invaded). After a few days, Ellen's parents and several other Jewish people arrive at Uncle Henrik's, escorted by Peter Nielsen, a friend of the family's who was once engaged to Lize and who has been working secretly to help the Danish Jews.

Peter and Mama bring the Rosens and the others to Uncle Henrik's boat in the middle of the night, but when Mama returns at dawn, she discovers that an important packet Peter had entrusted Mr. Rosen with for Henrik fell out of Mr. Rosen's pocket. Desperately, Annemarie runs to bring it to him, not knowing what it is, and is stopped by soldiers in the woods who insist that their search dogs smell meat. They search the basket the packet is hidden in and discover to their disappointment that it's just a handkerchief. Annemarie discovers later after delivering it to Uncle Henrik before he sets sail that the handkerchief was an invention meant to destroy the dogs' sense of smell so they couldn't find the people hidden on the boats. Because of Annemarie's bravery, the soldiers who search Uncle Henrik's boat don't find the Rosens and the others, and Uncle Henrik gets them safely to Sweden.

Two years later, the war is over. Mama and the other Danish people have been tending the homes of the Jews who had fled in the hope that they would return one day. Amid the church bells and dancing, the Yohansens are grieving because they've just received word that Peter Nielsen has been captured and executed by the Nazis for his work against them. Annemarie finds Ellen's Star of David necklace where she'd hidden it where Ellen had been staying with the Yohansen's and vows that she will wear it herself until Ellen returns. Though the story ends on a somber note, the star offers a glimmer of hope for Ellen's and Annemarie's futures and for all of Denmark.

Major Characters

The Yohansen family consists of Papa, Mama, and Kirsti. The oldest Yohansen daughter, Lize, had died 3 years before the novel opens.

However, Annemarie Yohansen is the novel's heroine. She is a bright and curious 10-year-old girl and is an example of the ways that hard times can force children to grow up. She asks questions about the war and the Nazi occupation and demands the truth from her parents about what is happening to Ellen and the other Danish Jews. She learns about bravery and trust, and about how sometimes keeping secrets from those we love is the only way to keep them safe. She's a contrast to 5-year-old Kirsti, who can't remember a time when the Nazis didn't occupy her country and only grasps that their presence has something to do with the fact that she can't eat bread and butter or cupcakes with pink frosting.

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