Considering what is happening in the United States right now (eg. Muslim ban), this book is a very appropriate read. It visits historical events including the sailing of the SS St. Louis with its refugees who were denied entry into several countries and died as a result.
The book alternates chapters between two narrators. One is Hannah Rosenthal in 1939 Berlin. She and the rest of her Jewish family flee Nazi Germany by setting sail on a ship for Havana. Unfortunately, the Cuban government changes the rules and the vast majority of refugees are not allowed to disembark. The second narrator is Anna Rosen who lives in New York with her mother. Anna receives a package of photos from her father’s aunt in Havana, and Anna convinces her mother to travel to Cuba so she can learn more about her father who died on 9/11.
There are many parallels between Hannah and Anna: at the beginning, both are pre-teens with an interest in photography; they both have absent fathers whom they idolize; their mothers are emotionally damaged women who hide in their rooms; and both are friendless except for boys who are very attached to them. There are so many similarities between Hannah and Anna that the plot feels contrived. The maudlin ending also adds to this impression.
The two-week trip across the Atlantic is one of the most interesting episodes in the book. What surprised me was that the crossing was a happy journey thanks to the captain, Gustav Schröder, who insisted his passengers be treated with dignity as if they were privileged tourists. The contrast with what the passengers have experienced in Germany and what awaits them is contrasted with the time spent on the ship where gourmet meals are served and concerts and dances are held. For the reader, of course, there is considerable suspense especially if he/she is aware of what happens at the end of “the voyage of the damned.” Will the people Hannah loves be among the few that were allowed to disembark?
The novel sheds light on the sailing of the SS St. Louis, a significant event in Holocaust history. The photos at the end reinforce that, though the book is fiction, it is based on real events.
The book also suggests that history tends to be repeated. The Rosenthals must hand over their home and possessions to the Nazis; later, Hannah must hand over her business to the communist Cuban government. As a young girl, Hannah is parted from a childhood friend because of politics and, as an adult, is parted from another loved one because of politics. Under Fidel Castro's communist regime, Jehovah's Witnesses were considered "social deviants" and were sent to labour camps to be "re-educated". In the novel, the nephew of the Rosen’s maid is sent to a work camp where a sign at the entrance reads “Work will make men of you” like the sign at Auschwitz which read “Work will set you free.”
We have probably all heard that people who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. That is the warning of this book. In a time of opposition to a specific religion and restrictions on people of that religion, we need to be reminded of the consequences of closed borders. Substitute “Muslim” for “Jew” and “plane” for “ship” and the similarities between history and the present are inescapable. As a work of fiction, this book is not flawless, but its message needs to be heard.