It had been fifteen years since I last read Number the Stars when I picked it up at the library this weekend. A little bit has changed in that time.
But I’m happy to report that not everything has changed. Water is still wet. Public libraries are still an intrinsic part of American cities and a gift to humanity. Mysterious socks still appear and disappear at random in shared laundry machines.
And this book is still an old and dear friend. Reading the first chapter title, “Why Are You Running?”, at the top of the first page, was like coming home.
Number the Stars is a straightforward story. Set in Denmark during the German occupation, it follows Annemarie, a ten-year-old Danish girl whose best friend, Ellen, is Jewish. As soldiers begin to harass and then deport Jewish Danes, Annemarie and her parents do what they can to protect Ellen and her family.
The historical context here is significantly simplified in some regards. The politics of German-occupied Denmark are only briefly touched upon, and the picture painted is of a thoroughly united country facing down the Nazi threat. I mention this mostly because, for this book in particular, the historical abridgement doesn’t especially bother me. While Annemarie’s story is written in third person, it’s fairly closely tied to her perspective, and part of her character development involves coming to terms with the idea that there’s more to what’s going on than what she can see.
If you’re saying at this point, come on, Cap, it’s a book for kids—of course the history is simplified—well, it’s pretty much always worth paying attention to what we think is acceptable history for kids and what we’d rather set aside.
So. With all of that said. This is where I was planning to write about a question implicit in the book, which is, In a situation like Annemarie’s, what would you do?
Was planning to write. In the past tense.
I do think the question is worth considering. Not in a grandiose, judgmental way: would you have the courage to Stand Up For What’s Right? Would you make The Right Choice? Rather, I think it’s worth considering quietly and plainly, all judgment aside. In the given situation, what’s your specific course of action? In this moment here, now, when you’re not afraid for your life or for the lives of your friends, think carefully about what the best thing would be to do if you were afraid. Where would it start? How might you recognize it? What could you do first, and then what could you do next?
Think it all the way through, step by step. Don’t play gotcha with yourself. Just breathe, and follow that train of thought all the way to the end. To its multiple ends, if you’re not confining yourself to the events of the book.
Ready? If not, that’s okay. Take as much time as you need.
I’m not going to ask you about your answers. There’s no final exam.
I was going to write about that question and its offshoots. What would you do? What if it was your friend? Your neighbor? Someone you don’t know at all? Really, though, nothing I can say adds anything to the discussion. The questions are as personal as it’s possible to be. I can frame them and reframe them and put my two cents in, but at the end of the day, nothing I can say changes your individual circumstances or those of the people around you. You can carry on that internal conversation quite well without me.
So instead I’ll close with a small thing about the way Number the Stars is put together that rang out clearly to me on re-reading.
Annemarie and Ellen are very close. Ellen is a friend worth waiting for through long years of separation, and she’s a person worth loving and protecting. The text never argues for her humanity; it takes it for granted from the beginning. Ellen is every bit as real a person as Annemarie, and there’s no need to prove it to the reader. I never doubted it as a ten-year-old kid; I don’t doubt it now.
It’s a small thing because the book lets it be a small thing, but it’s the foundation of everything else. The intimidation and cruelty directed at Ellen and her parents isn’t only wrong because they are a loving family with hopes and dreams and fears—a father who teaches, a mother who doesn’t like the ocean, and a daughter who wants to be an actress. It isn’t only wrong because Ellen and Annemarie are friends. It’s quite simply wrong because Ellen and her parents are people. We don’t have to spend a whole book’s worth of time worrying about whether that’s true or not, so we’re free to go ahead and do something about it.
“Why are you running?”, the first chapter asks. Even for those of you who haven’t yet read Number the Stars, I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that that question grows a whole tree of branching answers and sub-questions as the story goes on. It isn’t a particularly profound thing on its face. Like the story as a whole, though, when it’s rooted in the certainty of our collective humanity, it takes on an enthralling and remarkably sturdy life of its own.