Despite being a children’s novel, Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars makes a complicated argument about what it means to be brave. Throughout the novel, Lowry creates tension between the idea that bravery comes from knowing the risk at hand and doing the hard thing anyway, and the opposing idea that one is able to act more bravely when ignorant of what’s at stake. She ultimately argues that true bravery is not based on whether one knows what he or she is risking in being brave: true bravery is motivated by selflessness.
At the start of the novel, Annemarie Johansen is naïve about much of the violence happening right in her own hometown. The dramatic tension of the novel begins developing as Annemarie learns more about the world around her—and about her parents’ plans to help get the Rosens out of Denmark. As Annemarie is forced into situations that demand greater and greater bravery, she finds that people around her attempt to help her be brave by either supplying her with information or intentionally withholding it. In the end, Annemarie discovers that it doesn’t matter whether she knows what she’s getting into or not—in moments that require bravery, she is able to face both violence and fear because of her desire to do what’s right.
The first time Annemarie’s bravery is put to the test is the night the Johansens shelter Ellen Rosen. Nazis arrive at the apartment looking for the Rosens, and ask questions about why Ellen is dark-haired despite being the “daughter” of the fair-haired Johansens. Annemarie staunchly defends Ellen as her sister, and through her and her parents’ combined bravery, they are able to stand up to the Nazis, convince them that Ellen is truly one of their own and send the soldiers away. Annemarie knows exactly what is going on and exactly what is at stake during this encounter with the Nazis. Despite knowing the truth, she is still able to lie—her bravery is not contingent upon her ignorance. However, as the novel progresses and the fight to save Ellen and her family grows more dire, many of the adults attempt to shield Ellen and Annemarie from the truth, believing that doing so will help the girls act bravely and lie easily.
Out in the countryside, Annemarie is placed in several situations where she must risk everything for the Resistance’s mission of smuggling the Rosens and several other Jews across the sea to Sweden by way of Uncle Henrik’s boat. The adults around Annemarie often try to hide from her the truth of what’s going on, believing that if details of the mission are kept from Annemarie, it will be easier for her to be brave. Yet through two major plot points, Lowry shows that it doesn’t matter whether Annemarie knows what’s happening to or around her—her bravery comes from a self-sacrificing desire to secure the safety of her friends and neighbors.
When a casket is wheeled into the middle of Uncle Henrik’s living room, he and Mama tell Annemarie that there has been a death in the family—their Great-Aunt Birte has passed. Annemarie is immediately suspicious. When Annemarie confronts her uncle about the phony death, he tells her that it is “much easier to be brave if you do not know everything,” and yet reveals to her the truth: there is no Great-Aunt Birte and never was. When Nazis descend on the “mourners” gathered around the casket that evening, they threaten to open it—but through some quick thinking, Mama manages to distract the soldiers and redirect their attention. The casket is eventually revealed, after the Nazis leave, to be full of supplies for the Rosens and their fellow Jews. Knowing what was going on increased Annemarie’s fear that the farce of Great-Aunt Birte’s wake would be discovered—but did not stop her from being brave and keeping quiet when it mattered most.
The relationship between bravery and ignorance is once again put to the test when Annemarie must deliver a mysterious packet to Uncle Henrik’s ship before he leaves the harbor with the Rosens and the other Jews. Though Annemarie does not know what’s inside the packet, she has been told that all may be lost without it. As Annemarie hurries through the woods to deliver the packet, she is stopped by two Nazis who demand to rifle through her basket—and who feed the cheese and bread inside of it to their snarling, intimidating dogs. When they find the packet and open it—after repeatedly questioning the ignorant Annemarie as to its contents—they see that it is nothing more than a handkerchief and, after their dogs smell it and don’t react, allow her to pass. Later, when Annemarie learns that the handkerchief actually contained a solution which served to dull the Nazis’ search dogs’ sense of smell, thus preventing them from picking up the scent of the people hiding beneath the deck of Henrik’s ship, she sees just how vital her role in delivering the package was after all. She wonders if she would have been able to keep calm and complete her mission as skillfully if she had known what the packet contained—but the answer is ultimately irrelevant. Annemarie was determined to get the packet to Henrik and to secure the safety of her friends and neighbors no matter the cost.
Only at the very end of the novel does Annemarie fully understand the truth of her family’s story—and her own. In the book’s final pages, Annemarie learns that her sister Lise died not in a random car accident, but an attack orchestrated by Nazis in an attempt to decimate members of the Resistance effort of which Lise was a part. The fact that so much of Annemarie’s own personal history has been obscured from her by those trying to protect her from the truth doesn’t anger or upset her—but she concedes that it’s impossible to say whether knowing the truth about Lise would have helped or hampered her ability to be brave for those who needed her. In the end, Annemarie’s bravery stems from her personal commitment to helping Ellen at any cost, and her belief in the equality, dignity, and sacredness of the lives of those she was protecting.
Bravery Quotes in Number the Stars
“Mama, is there anything to eat?” Annemarie asked, hoping to take her mother’s mind away from the soldiers.
“Take some bread. And give a piece to your sister.”
“With butter?” Kirsti asked hopefully.
“No butter,” her mother replied. “You know that.”
Kirsti sighed as Annemarie went to the breadbox in the kitchen. “I wish I could have a cupcake,” she said. “A big yellow cupcake, with pink frosting.”
Her mother laughed. “For a little girl, you have a long memory,” she told Kirsti. “There hasn’t been any butter, or sugar for cupcakes, for a long time. A year, at least.”
“When will there be cupcakes again?”
“When the war ends,” Mrs. Johansen said. She glanced through the window, down to the street corner where the soldiers stood, their faces impassive beneath the metal helmets. “When the soldiers leave.”
Redheaded Peter, her sister’s fiancé, had not married anyone in the years since Lise’s death. He had changed a great deal. Once he had been like a fun-loving older brother to Annemarie and Kirsti, teasing and tickling, always a source of foolishness and pranks. Now he still stopped by the apartment often, and his greetings to the girls were warm and smiling, but he was usually in a hurry, talking quickly to Mama and Papa about things Annemarie didn’t understand. He no longer sang the nonsense songs that had once made Annemarie and Kirsti shriek with laughter. And he never lingered anymore.
Papa had changed, too. He seemed much older and very tired, defeated.
The whole world had changed. Only the fairy tales remained the same.
“And they lived happily ever after,” Annemarie recited, whispering into the dark, completing the tale for her sister, who slept beside her, one thumb in her mouth.
Now she was ten, with long legs and no more silly dreams of pink-frosted cupcakes. And now she—and all the Danes—were to be bodyguard for Ellen, and Ellen’s parents, and all of Denmark’s Jews.
Would she die to protect them? Truly? Annemarie was honest enough to admit, there in the darkness, to herself, that she wasn’t sure.
For a moment she felt frightened. But she pulled the blanket up higher around her neck and relaxed. It was all imaginary, anyway—not real. It was only in the fairy tales that people were called upon to be so brave, to die for one another. Not in real-life Denmark. Oh, there were the soldiers; that was true. And the courageous Resistance leaders, who sometimes lost their lives; that was true, too.
But ordinary people like the Rosens and the Johansens? Annemarie admitted to herself, snuggling there in the quiet dark, that she was glad to be an ordinary person who would never be called upon for courage.
Annemarie grinned and walked her Scarlett toward the chair that Ellen had designated as Tivoli. She loved Tivoli Gardens, in the heart of Copenhagen; her parents had taken her there, often, when she was a little girl. She remembered the music and the brightly colored lights, the carousel and ice cream and especially the magnificent fireworks in the evenings: the huge colored splashes and bursts of lights in the evening sky.
“I remember the fireworks best of all,” she commented to Ellen.
“Me too,” Kirsti said. “I remember the fireworks.”
“Silly,” Annemarie scoffed. “You never saw the fireworks.” Tivoli Gardens was closed now. The German occupation forces had burned part of it, perhaps as a way of punishing the fun-loving Danes for their lighthearted pleasures.
Kirsti drew herself up, her small shoulders stiff. “I did too,” she said belligerently. “It was my birthday. I woke up in the night and I could hear the booms. And there were lights in the sky. Mama said it was fireworks for my birthday!”
Then Annemarie remembered. Kirsti’s birthday was late in August. And that night, only a month before, she, too, had been awakened and frightened by the sound of explosions. Kirsti was right—the sky in the southeast had been ablaze, and Mama had comforted her by calling it a birthday celebration.
“You said that we would hide her. How can we do that? Where can she hide?”
Papa smiled. “That part is easy. It will be as your mama said: you two will sleep together in your bed, and you may giggle and talk and tell secrets to each other. And if anyone comes—”
Ellen interrupted him. “Who might come? Will it be soldiers? Like the ones on the corners?” Annemarie remembered how terrified Ellen had looked the day when the soldier had questioned them on the corner.
“I really don’t think anyone will. But it never hurts to be prepared. If anyone should come, even soldiers, you two will be sisters. You are together so much, it will be easy for you to pretend that you are sisters.”
Annemarie and Ellen got to their feet. Papa suddenly crossed the room and put his arms around them both. He kissed the top of each head: Annemarie’s blond one, which reached to his shoulder, and Ellen’s dark hair, the thick curls braided as always into pigtails.
“Don’t be frightened,” he said to them softly. “Once I had three daughters. Tonight I am proud to have three daughters again.”
“Ellen,” [Annemarie] whispered urgently, “take your necklace off!”
Ellen’s hands flew to her neck. Desperately she began trying to unhook the tiny clasp. Outside the bedroom door, the harsh voices and heavy footsteps continued.
“I can’t get it open!” Ellen said frantically. “I never take it off—I can’t even remember how to open it!”
Annemarie heard a voice just outside the door. “What is here?”
“Shhh,” her mother replied. “My daughters’ bedroom. They are sound asleep.”
“Hold still,” Annemarie commanded. “This will hurt.” She grabbed the little gold chain, yanked with all her strength, and broke it. As the door opened and light flooded into the bedroom, she crumpled it into her hand and closed her fingers tightly.
Terrified, both girls looked up at the three Nazi officers who entered the room.
“So, Henrik, is the weather good for fishing?” Papa asked cheerfully, and listened briefly.
Then he continued, “I’m sending Inge to you today with the children, and she will be bringing you a carton of cigarettes.
“Yes, just one,” he said, after a moment. Annemarie couldn’t hear Uncle Henrik’s words. “But there are a lot of cigarettes available in Copenhagen now, if you know where to look,” he went on, “and so there will be others coming to you as well, I’m sure.”
But it wasn’t true. Annemarie was quite certain it wasn’t true. Cigarettes were the thing that Papa missed, the way Mama missed coffee. He complained often—he had complained only yesterday—that there were no cigarettes in the stores. The men in his office, he said, making a face, smoked almost anything: sometimes dried weeds rolled in paper, and the smell was terrible.
Why was Papa speaking that way, almost as if he were speaking in code? What was Mama really taking to Uncle Henrik?
Then she knew. It was Ellen.
Ellen touched her neck after she had put on Annemarie’s flower-sprigged nightgown, which Mama had packed.
“Where is my necklace?” she asked. “What did you do with it?”
“I hid it in a safe place,” Annemarie told her. “A very secret place where no one will ever find it. And I will keep it there for you until it is safe for you to wear it again.”
Ellen nodded. “Papa gave it to me when I was very small,” she explained.
She sat down on the edge of the old bed and ran her fingers along the handmade quilt that covered it. The flowers and birds, faded now, had been stitched onto the quilt by Annemarie’s great-grandmother many years before.
“I wish I knew where my parents are,” Ellen said in a small voice as she outlined one of the appliqued birds with her finger.
Annemarie didn’t have an answer for her. She patted Ellen’s hand and they sat together silently.
“How brave are you, little Annemarie?” [Uncle Henrik] asked suddenly. She was startled. And dismayed. It was a question she did not want to be asked. When she asked it of herself, she didn’t like her own answer.
“Not very,” she confessed, looking at the floor of the barn.
Tall Uncle Henrik knelt before her so that his face was level with hers. Behind him, Blossom lowered her head, grasped a mouthful of hay in her mouth, and drew it in with her tongue. The kitten cocked its head, waiting, still hoping for spilled milk.
“I think that is not true,” Uncle Henrik said. “I think you are like your mama, and like your papa, and like me. Frightened, but determined, and if the time came to be brave, I am quite sure you would be very, very brave.
“But,” he added, “it is much easier to be brave if you do not know everything. And so your mama does not know everything. Neither do I. We know only what we need to know.
“Do you understand what I am saying?” he asked, looking into her eyes.
Annemarie frowned. She wasn’t sure. What did bravery mean?
[Peter’s] eyes turned to the page he had opened at random, and he began to read in a strong voice.
O praise the Lord.
How good it is to sing psalms to our God!
How pleasant to praise him!
The Lord is rebuilding Jerusalem;
he gathers in the scattered sons of Israel.
It is he who heals the broken in spirit
and binds up their wounds,
he who numbers the stars one by one . . .
The words were unfamiliar to her, and she tried to listen, tried to understand, tried to forget the war and the Nazis, tried not to cry, tried to be brave. The night breeze moved the dark curtains at the open windows. Outside, she knew, the sky was speckled with stars. How could anyone number them one by one, as the psalm said? There were too many. The sky was too big.
Ellen had said that her mother was frightened of the ocean, that it was too cold and too big.
The sky was, too, thought Annemarie. The whole world was: too cold, too big. And too cruel.
“The old man stumbled. But Peter helped him up. He didn’t seem to be hurt. Maybe just his pride,” she added, smiling a bit.
It was an odd word: pride. Annemarie looked at the Rosens, sitting there, wearing the misshapen, ill-fitting clothing, holding ragged blankets folded in their arms, their faces drawn and tired. She remembered the earlier, happier times: Mrs. Rosen, her hair neatly combed and covered, lighting the Sabbath candles, saying the ancient prayer. And Mr. Rosen, sitting in the big chair in their living room, studying his thick books, correcting papers, adjusting his glasses, looking up now and then to complain good-naturedly about the lack of decent light. She remembered Ellen in the school play, moving confidently across the stage, her gestures sure, her voice clear.
All of those things, those sources of pride—the candlesticks, the books, the daydreams of theater—had been left behind in Copenhagen. They had nothing with them now; there was only the clothing of unknown people for warmth, the food from Henrik’s farm for survival, and the dark path ahead, through the woods, to freedom.
But their shoulders were as straight as they had been in the past: in the classroom, on the stage, at the Sabbath table. So there were other sources, too, of pride, and they had not left everything behind.
“So little Red Riding-Hood carried the basket of food and hurried along through the woods. It was a lovely morning, and birds were singing. Little Red Riding-Hood sang, too, as she walked.”
Sometimes she changed that part of the story, telling it to Kirsti. Sometimes it was raining, or even snowing, in the woods. Sometimes it was evening, with long, frightening shadows, so that Kirsti, listening, would snuggle closer and wrap her arms around Annemarie. But now, telling it to herself, she wanted sunlight and bird song.
Annemarie’s mind raced. She remembered what her mother had said. “If anyone stops you, you must pretend to be nothing more than a silly little girl.”
She stared at the soldiers. She remembered how she had stared at the others, frightened, when they had stopped her on the street.
Kirsti hadn’t been frightened. Kirsti had been—well, nothing more than a silly little girl, angered because the soldier had touched her hair that after noon. She had known nothing of danger, and the soldier had been amused by her.
Annemarie willed herself, with all her being, to behave as Kirsti would.
“Good morning,” she said carefully to the soldiers.
“Uncle Henrik,” [Annemarie] asked, “where are the Rosens and the others? I thought you were taking them to Sweden on your boat. But they weren’t there.”
“They were there,” he told her, leaning forward against the cow’s broad side. “You shouldn’t know this. You remember that I told you it was safer not to know.
“But,” he went on, as his hands moved with their sure and practiced motion, “I will tell you just a little, because you were so very brave.”
“Brave?” Annemarie asked, surprised. “No, I wasn’t. I was very frightened.”
“You risked your life.”
“But I didn’t even think about that! I was only thinking of—”
He interrupted her, smiling. “That’s all that brave means—not thinking about the dangers. Just thinking about what you must do. Of course you were frightened. I was too, today. But you kept your mind on what you had to do. So did I. Now let me tell you about the Rosens.”
That night, Annemarie’s parents told her the truth about Lise’s death at the beginning of the war.
“She was part of the Resistance, too,” Papa had explained. “Part of the group that fought for our country in whatever ways they could.”
“We didn’t know,” Mama added. “She didn’t tell us. Peter told us after she died.”
“Oh, Papa!” Annemarie cried. “Mama!”
[Annemarie] turned and went to her bedroom, where the blue trunk still stood in the corner, as it had all these years. Opening it, Annemarie saw that the yellow dress had begun to fade; it was discolored at the edges where it had lain so long in folds.
Carefully she spread open the skirt of the dress and found the place where Ellen’s necklace lay hidden in the pocket. The little Star of David still gleamed gold.
“Papa?” she said, returning to the balcony, where her father was standing with the others, watching the rejoicing crowd. She opened her hand and showed him the necklace. “Can you fix this? I have kept it all this long time. It was Ellen’s.”
Her father took it from her and examined the broken clasp. “Yes,” he said. “I can fix it. When the Rosens come home, you can give it back to Ellen.”
“Until then,” Annemarie told him, “I will wear it myself.”