Alan Gratz’s young adult novel “Refugee” is being added to book lists in schools across the world at the moment, and is getting great reviews on Amazon.
So I thought I’d offer my thoughts on the book, as a parent whose child has been given the book as required reading in school.
TL;DR review: Intellectually dishonest, politically biased. An average read but requiring strong parental supervision. Some strong violence.
NOTE: This post contains many spoilers.
Broad overview of Gratz’s 2016 novel “Refugee”
Refugee follows the stories of three young adults, as their families leave their homes in search of a better life. Josef is a Jew attempting to escape Nazi Germany in 1938, Isabel and her family are part of the Balseros fleet exiting Cuba in 1994, and Mahmoud is leaving war-torn Syria with his family in 2015.
The three stories are rotated evenly, so each chapter we follow the adventures of each character, and many chapters end on a cliffhanger.
Josef’s story is based on the infamous historic journey on the MS St Louis, which carried over 900 Jewish refugees to Cuba, then was denied entry. While Josef is fictional, the events in his portion of the story are based in reality. Of the 937 Jewish refugees on board, approximately one quarter eventually ended up dying during the Holocaust.
Isabel’s story is based on a rough account of the infamous balseros, the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who built rafts and found their way to the USA to avoid communism during Castro’s regime.
Mahmoud’s story is based, according to Gratz’s comments in the epilogue, largely on mass media stories and photographs of the Syrian refugee’s movements through Europe since 2015.
Is it well-written?
For the most part, the story is well-written, although it is very derivative.
I found the conclusion of Joself’s story in particular, which is pretty much a re-hash of the Meryl Streep movie Sophie’s Choice, to be a cheap cop out. Perhaps Gratz didn’t figure his young readers would notice his lack of originality?
As a reader, I would have liked to see more originality in some of the key events in the novel. It felt very much like Gratz was more interested in pushing a political point than in creating memorable characters, interesting dialogue and challenging scenes. Some characters seemed to exist purely for shock value (soldiers getting shot in the head in Syria, Hana the baby being separated from Mahmoud’s family, Josef’s father going crazy and diving off the MS St Louis), and the tie-ins between the character plotlines at the conclusion were obvious and forced.
Is it historically accurate?
Yes – and no. Gratz does admit that he takes poetic license with many of the plot details. The bigger question is strong bias, rather than historical accuracy.
Is it politically biased?
The novel is very politically biased, and I would argue that the primary reason for Gratz writing the novel is to sway his young audience politically and emotionally, resulting in manipulating their viewpoint of current hot topic political events in Europe.
The big question is – are all his three protagonists actually refugees?
I’d argue that only one qualifies for the term for the entirety of his story, yet by linking the three protagonsists, Gratz associates the term “refugee” with all three, thereby gaining sympathy ad political support for all three.
There is absolutely no doubt, historically and politically, that the Jews of the MS St Louis were genuine refugees, and deserving of the term. At all points in Josef’s story he is in fear for his life, he has a regime after him who will kill him given the chance, he is attempting to find a safe place for his family, and he is on the run. As Josef considers on page 226, “He would live anywhere so long as it was away from the Nazis.”
Isabel and her family, by comparison, are not in fear for their lives in Cuba by the Castro regime. They do not leave Cuba because they is under a death sentence. Her father is seen rioting (which in most countries is a criminal act), and they leave to avoid him being put in prison as a criminal.
While this is an understandable thing to want to do, and the Castro regime resulted in pretty much a failed state and much hardship, I don’t view it as Isabel being a “refugee”. I view it as being a criminal and his family on the run.
During Isabel’s journey, her best friend dies as a result of a shark attack, so it could also be argued that they would have been better off remaining in Cuba, where her young friend would have lived rather than died.
Overall, it is made clear that Isabel and her family are in search of a better life, but this doesn’t mean they are refugees. It simply means they are hopeful immigrants.
As for Mahmoud, he is a refugee at the beginning of his journey, as his home is shelled by an air strike and he is left with nowhere to live. It is absolutely clear that his family cannot stay in his home city of Aleppo.
But very early on in the story he and his family reach safety across the Turkish border, and are granted asylum, safety and a place to stay in a Turkish refugee camp.
This is not good enough for Mahmoud and his family, and from this point on in the story, they decide to become criminals, hiding out in an abandoned shopping mall, living on the streets, paying illegal people smugglers to smuggle them across to Lesbos in Greece, crossing borders illegal, becoming involved in a riot on the Hungarian border, breaking through a border fence into Hungary, and breaking out of detention centers in Austria.
They also lose track of Mahmoud’s baby sister when the people smuggler’s dingy sinks, and they almost drown – both of these terrible events could have been avoided had they stayed in their safe refugee camp in Turkey.
By this point in the story – for the majority of Mahmoud’s story – they are shopping around for a better life, and are no longer refugees. At one point in the story, they actually refuse to stay in Hungary when offered the option, because it is not their preferred destination.
Should you talk to your child about the issues in the novel?
Children are easily swayed, and the material in the story is presented in such a way that kids would undoubtedly believe that all three protagonists are equally deserving of sympathy and assistance, yet that is clearly not the case. The book’s own content cannot even make such a case.
I would argue that the book is extreme-left propaganda, fuelling a globalist point of view and encouraging children to support the movement of more people across borders.
While you may or may not agree with this political stance, it is disingenuous to present false narratives that equate all immigrant stories as equal to one another, as Gratz does in “Refugee.”
Should schools be adding this book to required reading lists?
I do not believe so. I believe strongly that schools should stay out of politics, and should not be setting such books on reading lists. Setting such a book is tantamount to brainwashing, in my opinion.
Should you prevent your child from reading “Refugee”
I believe it depends on the parent. In our case, our twelve-year-old was set this book in school, and at first we were thinking of requesting that she sit out of class, and read something else instead.
However, what we have decided is that we will encourage her to read the book, but we have read it too, and are discussing its contents at home, using the novel as a great example of “What Not To Read”, and how what we read can sway how we think.
Some reading list alternatives to “Refugee”
Books that deal with the issue of genuine refugees that you may want your child to read instead include Anne Frank: The diary of a young girl and Ian Serrailler’s The Silver Sword. The former needs no introduction. The latter deals with the journey of three children across the battlefields of Europe from Poland to Switzerland in an attempt to find their parents.