Two of my tutoring clients were assigned this book for summer reading, so of course it ended up on my reading list as well. If you’ve been reading this blog for some time, you may have noticed that I have a pattern of reading middle grade or young adult novels and then eviscerating their authors for not being subtle and Proustian and so forth (you can find examples here, here, here, and probably also here). Knowing that this review was coming up, I tried hard to temper this tendency while I was reading Number the Stars. For God’s sake, I said, the only reason this book exists is to provide middle-grade readers with a gentle introduction to the Holocaust. Give it a break. But then another one of the voices in my head (you know, the one that’s voting for Trump) said that the author’s not in middle school and all literature should be held to the same standards and how hard is it to show not tell and a “gentle introduction to the Holocaust” isn’t even a thing, for God’s sake. Though there is some truth to these statements, I really did plan to write a sympathetic, kid-friendly review – that is, until I discussed it with a student and found that the book is even less sophisticated than I thought. I’ll explain.
Like many teachers, I often start discussing a novel by introducing or reviewing terms like protagonist, antagonist, and conflict. I mention that while most short stories and novels have a single protagonist, many or most will have multiple antagonists and multiple conflicts. It’s such a standard part of my routine that I don’t even bother to jot down any notes first. So when I assured my student that all novels have multiple conflicts and then asked her to see how many she could find, I was not at all prepared for the fact that this book only contains one conflict: the innocent, idealized citizens of wartime Denmark vs. the Nazis.
Now – if a book has to be simplistic, then sure, the Nazis make excellent bad guys. Cliché bad guys, mind you, but they fit the mold perfectly. No arguments. But the thing is, the best protagonists are complicated and flawed, and if there are Nazis in a novel, the author has nearly free rein to make the protagonist flawed. The protagonist can be a rapist, a serial killer, a drowner of kittens – and s/he will still be a good guy compared to the Nazis. And then get this: this is a Holocaust novel with a happy ending. I don’t mean a Life is Beautiful happy ending, where the father is dead and the American soldiers are carrying the little boy in the tank and he sees his mother with her shorn hair, and you’re bawling your eyes out because it’s the happiest ending you’ve ever seen and the saddest ending you’ve ever seen all at the same time – that kind of happy ending is just fine. But this book literally has a happy ending, where all the Jewish characters are smuggled off to safety in Sweden. With the exception of Peter, the idealized Resistance fighter who dies an idealized death, everyone makes it safely through the war. Even in the protagonist’s thoughts, we never really see her waver. We see her contemplate the idea that she might not be as brave as she wants to be, but in the climactic scene – which is based on, no joke – “Little Red Riding Hood” – she maintains her preternatural poise and equanimity like no nine year-old ever and eludes the Nazis and their dogs and save the day.
I know that there is a school of thought that says children need these kinds of stories, in which good confronts evil. The children empathize with the idealized protagonist and imagine themselves defeating Nazis, and the act of imagining creates synaptic pathways (or something) that prepare the children for times when they will need to act quickly and wisely to defeat an antagonist of their own. I do not deny that this may be true. But I can’t help thinking of Francine Prose’s essay “I Know Why the Caged Bird Can’t Read,” which I’ve discussed with many high school students over the years and which never fails to provoke debate. Prose zeroes in on To Kill a Mockingbird, which many teenagers love, and judges it a simplistic book because the lesson of To Kill a Mockingbird is that evil is “out there” – in other words, in people other than ourselves. In that novel, Bob Ewell is evil – and some of the other citizens who join him in lynching Tom Robinson are evil as well, or on the verge of becoming so. Scout is not evil; nor is Jem or Atticus or Calpurnia or even the bitchy Mrs. Dubose down the street or the corset-worshipping Aunt Alexandra. Good fiction, Francine Prose asserts, teaches us not that evil is “out there” but that evil is “in here” – that we’re complicit in it, that we sometimes benefit from it, that our own comfortable lives are built on the backs of others less fortunate than ourselves. The intended audience of Number the Stars seems to be children in grades 3-5 – though one of my students who was assigned to read it is in the eighth grade, for God’s sake – and I don’t know exactly where the line falls between laying pathways for future courageous behavior and Nietszche’s arresting notion that “when you look long into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” My favorite novel for preteens and young teenagers is Ender’s Game, which in addition to being a rip-roaring wild ride of a read also contains one of the most moving meditations on guilt and redemption that I have ever read. In that novel the youthful protagonist does commit evil and is forever changed by it, even though his community lauds him as a hero. The “good guys” in Ender’s Game behave much worse than the Nazis in Number the Stars, because the characters in Ender’s Game are so well-drawn that readers are tricked into thinking that real lives are at stake, and their cynicism and condescension are shocking. The Nazis in Number the Stars, on the other hand, are cardboard cut-outs, caricatures. Colonel Klink, monocle and all.
Now, after my rough treatment of Lowry’s novel, I do want to end on a positive note. If you are a parent or teacher and are discussing this book with a child who has read it, consider asking the student to decipher the meaning the title. If the child needs help, point him or her to chapter 10 (pp. 86-87 in my edition), and point out the Psalm that Peter reads, which contains the phrase “number the stars,” then follow the imagery and see where it takes you. It helps if you know that the psalms were written by King David, of “Star of” fame, and if you wanted to explore a parallel between King David and Denmark’s wartime King Christian, you might find your discussion traveling to some interesting places. And if you want to mention the idea that to kill one person is in effect to destroy the entire world – an idea that appears in both Jewish teachings and in the Qu’ran – I suppose you could do that too.
Thank you for an excellent review. I have not read the book, but I really appreciate your stance that moral ambiguity is something that teenagers and middle-schoolers are able to deal with and indeed should learn how to be comfortable with. I loved reading “All Quiet on the Western Front” when I was about 13 or 14 because it gave me a fresh understanding of the German soldier. I also would recommend that people of that age read “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”. It’s not simplistic poetry but it is not difficult to read and brings up a lot of questions: “Those that I fight I do not hate / Those that I guard I do not love…”
Thanks! A lot of teachers now spend soooo long on each book that they don’t have time to teach groups of texts that comment back and forth to one another as you suggest. And they’re afraid of parents complaining about “controversial” reading assignments. 😦