I picked up Refugee by Alan Gratz with an eye towards my sixth graders (my seventh-grade son read it before I did), and I quickly found my heart and mind tumbling into the uncertainty of the three characters here as they each navigated an escape from their homeland. I teared up at the end, too, when Gratz effectively pulls all three story threads together in a way that I won’t give away in this review.
You need to read this book.
Refugee focuses on three stories: a Jewish boy escaping Nazi Germany, a young girl leaving Cuba for the United States as part of one of Castro’s boat-lifts, and a Muslim boy trying to make his way to Germany after his country of Syria has been reduced to rubbles by the current Civil War. Each story, from a different time. But the narrative arcs that Gratz spins brings each character’s story closer and closer to each other.
The terror, the uncertainty, the fear, the setbacks, the dangers, the hope … the reader experiences and lives all of these emotional entanglements through the eyes of these three characters, so much so that I am not sure I can use Refugee as a class novel, as I had hoped when I started the book. The brutality of the Nazis, in particular, is too intense. Gratz doesn’t pull punches. I don’t think I am being too protective of my sixth graders, although I wonder how much of the ugly world I should expose them to. The world is ugly, after all. I’m never completely certain how far to go, to be honest.
I really appreciated what comes after the end of the novel, in his author’s note section, where Gratz shows the three maps of the three journeys of his refugee characters, and then he writes for a few pages about his research and where the stories emerged from, in regards to the world — in both the past and the present. He then goes on to share some organizations that help refugee children in the world, using the book as a platform for reaching out.
All in all, this book is amazingly powerful, and its narrative arcs and sympathetic characters will pull you deep into the experience beyond the newspaper headlines. It does what a good book should do: transforms your view of the world, and leaves you with some hope amid the horror.
Did I mention you should read this book?
Peace (let it be),