Refugee, by Alan Gratz
published in 2017 by Scholastic Press
I finally made it through the l-o-n-g waiting list at my library and had the chance to read this astonishing novel. And I am here to tell you — I rarely outright cry when I read a book, but I was weeping at the close of this monumentally human story.
Alan Gratz weaves together three distinct stories of young refugees which span almost 80 years of the 20th and 21st centuries. Josef, a Jewish boy evading the Nazis in 1930s Germany. Isabel, a Cuban girl whose family attempts to escape the Castro regime by raft in 1994. And Mahmoud, who with his family flees the civil war in Syria in 2015.
Children from Ravensbruck Concentration Camp
The nightmarish worlds each of these children finds him/herself in are presented here with the grim reality of shock, despair, intense grief, paralyzing fear, the relentless onslaught of another and yet another horrific wave of violence, suffering, loss, distress. As we follow their escape routes, we are overwhelmed, aghast. Our hearts are crushed along with theirs. These are not narratives wherein everyone comes through nicely with merely a scratch, rescued in the 11th hour. No, they are stories based on real children, composites of true refugee accounts, and as such they are strewn with enormous tragedy.
Yet it’s these very stories, so bleak and monstrous one cannot fathom experiencing them, that we comfortable ones must face, hear, acknowledge, mourn, that motivate us to live with sacrificial love and empathy, that cause a welling up of longing to be one of the compassionate ones in our world.
Cubans flee Havana, August 1994
Are you saturated with bad news from the current daily news cycle and feel you cannot bear to read something dark and depressing? Take heart. Because in the darkest moments, that is when Gratz ushers in the sunstreaked twists that’ll leave you reaching for a tissue. It’s not the onslaught of evil that made me weep, but the moments when gutwrenching depths of love, tough-won tenderness, pierced-heart kindness, reach into the morass of misery to bring redemption, mercy, and rescue.
Syrian refugees cross into Hungary, 2015
Gratz hopscotches back and forth between the three narratives so that we track the journeys of all three families throughout the novel. He then orchestrates a final movement in which the disparate lives impact one another in surprising, profound ways. Here is the hard won kernel of hope, goodness, humanity, here at “the end of all things” as Frodo and Sam would say.
Obviously timely. Highly recommended for ages 13 through adult. Be aware — if my review hasn’t cued you in already — there’s a boatload of grief and violence here, so be wise in handing this to younger readers.
This is on my nightstand to read for the new online Diverse Books Club. I am glad to hear your thoughts before diving in. I think I know what you mean about those quieter moments evoking an emotional response moreso than other times. When I read A Long Walk to Water recently (which I know you also recommend!) there was so much misery and tragedy, but what really moved me was after being abandoned and witnessing other group leaders leave people behind, Salva was still able to become a kind and compassionate leader himself to that huge group of boys. When I read that he had the older ones carry the little ones who were too tired or weak, that’s whwn I felt the tears prick. It’s a really talented writer who can take us through these kinds of journeys in that way I think.
Oh, an online book club sounds great! I’ve thought about that concept…I’ll have to check out how yours works. And I’m eager to hear what you think of this book. Yes, the story of Salva is just the sort — the darkness is so huge and then here comes compassion and it’s even bigger.
I can’t take any credit for the club itself, but I’m so glad to have joined! Definitely check it out when you get a chance. I love the way they have it set up with monthly picks in all categories — picture books, MG, YA, and adult. You can participate as much or as little as you like, but there are options to discuss on Goodread, Instagam, etc. So far my favorite part has been the books they’ve chosen 🙂