The theme for Diverse Books Club this month is: immigrant and refugee experiences. After reading the synopsis for Refugee, I knew it was a read I would be joining them in.
From the back cover:
JOSEF is a Jewish boy living in 1930s Nazi Germany. With the threat of concentration camps looming, he and his family board a ship bound for the other side of the world . . .
ISABEL is a Cuban girl in 1994. With riots and unrest plaguing her country, she and her family set out on a raft, hoping to find safety in America . . .
MAHMOUD is a Syrian boy in 2015. With his homeland torn apart by violence and destruction, he and his family begin a long trek toward Europe . . .
All three kids go on harrowing journeys in search of refuge. All will face unimaginable dangers — from drownings to bombings to betrayals. But there is always the hope of tomorrow. And although Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are separated by continents and decades, shocking connections will tie their stories together in the end.
The blurb above is pretty self-explanatory so I won’t dwell on the plot itself. I will say Refugee is a powerful book that really touched my heart, the plight of these children was so sad and it made me so mad at humanity – these senseless conflicts! Based on the conflicts themselves, the courage displayed and the journies undertaken, I had no favourite narrative. One could argue Mahmoud’s narrative was the most impactful – the Holocaust and Fidel Castro’s reign are both over (no doubt, the ripples are still being felt today) but the war in Syria rages on today; it is not a historical event but a narrative of the present day. To evaluate this book from an “this is an adventure novel” perspective, Isabel’s was my favourite because her family’s battle against nature’s most dangerous phenomenon had my heart pounding.
Usually when I read novels aimed at a younger reading audience that explore important themes, I always wish there was an adult version of the same novel so the themes could run deeper – be explored in greater depth. But here, I had no such wish, not only was the language accessible to its target reading audience, it also portrayed the “voices” of these young characters perfectly – the anguish was so powerful, as was the hope.
Gratz left out much of the “political” in this novel, which I really appreciated because it did not allow the children’s stories to get lost in the politics. If a younger person was reading this novel, they would likely feel overwhelmed by the political talk and this would become a very overwhelming read. But also, as an older person reading this novel, I am familiar with these horrific moments in time so while the politics was there in the back of my mind, I was concentrating on these children and the fact that their stories are echoed by millions of other children and that was the power of this novel.
While this novel is targeted at a middle grade level (8-12 years old) readers, it is definitely for the mature middle graders as I believe the content could be extremely upsetting to young children. If you are encouraging your youngsters to read this novel, which you absolutely should, as I will be encouraging my son to read it, in a year or two, it is a book that should be accompanied by a discussion, if for no reason other than to offer your child some comfort after some harrowing reading.
Josef, Isabel and Mahmoud are all fleeing conflict and that is the important theme. But I enjoy reading survival stories of ‘man vs. nature’, and I must commend Gratz on how well he portrayed these journeys against the background of the landscape. Particularly the narrative of Isabel, her families experience at sea alone was harrowing, let alone the conflict they were fleeing.
For the themes explored, for the target audience, I have not one bad thing to say about this novel. I’m extremely glad I read it and look forward to passing it along to my son to read.