From School Library Journal
Grade 6-8–Based on the story of the MS St. Louis
in 1939, the journey of the fictional Nazi luxury liner MS St. Francis
from Germany to Cuba and the United States creates the dramatic underpinning for this story. Focusing on 15-year-old Thomas Werkmann and 14-year-old Priska Affeldt, Whitney chronicles what happened to more than 900 Jews seeking refuge from growing anti-Semitism in Germany. Thomas is traveling alone. His father, who is Jewish, is in Dachau, and his mother, a Christian, could raise the money for only one passage. A strong friendship develops between the wary boy and optimistic Priska, who is traveling with her family. Whitney integrates, sometimes in an overly journalistic tone, information about oppression in Germany, but readers' attention is held by the young passengers' playful pranks, the developing romance between the two main characters, and tension between the passengers and the Nazi crew. Chess becomes significant to the story, possibly leaving some readers at a loss. The dramatic tone is sometimes too subdued, especially when the passengers are forced to make the return trans-Atlantic journey after being turned away from Cuba and the United States. In spite of these shortcomings, this story will hold readers' interest and heighten awareness of history that could become forgotten. The author imparts the fates of the passengers in the last two chapters, one set 10 years after the ship returns to Europe and the other 70 years after. A chronology of German anti-Semitic legislation is appended.–Renee Steinberg, formerly at Fieldstone Middle School, Montvale, NJ
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Based on the 1939 voyage of the luxury liner MS St. Louis, which took 947 Jewish refugees away from Nazi Germany and headed to Cuba, this gripping novel tells the story from one fictionalized passenger’s viewpoint. Thomas, 15, feels haunted and guilty that he has left his parents behind. His Jewish father is in Dachau, and his Christian mother could afford to pay for only one ticket on the boat. As Thomas gets to know the passengers and crew over the 16-day voyage, he discovers Nazis and anti-Nazis, spies and counterspies. He plays chess to pass the time, and he falls in love with a gorgeous teenager, although her bubbly optimism does make him mad. Even chess fans may find the game descriptions too detailed, especially the metaphors about pawns and moves that echo life on board. But the dialogue, especially the flirting, is fast and tender, and Whitney builds the story’s excitement: Will Cuba let them in? Will the U.S.? The answers are no, and readers will welcome the appended factual material, including a bibliography, to learn more of the devastating history. Grades 7-10. --Hazel Rochman