by Alan Gratz

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1050

Though Refugee is a novel, all three of its main storylines are based on actual historical events. As Gratz observes in his author’s note to the novel, the MS St. Louis was a real ship carrying 937 passengers, almost all of them Jews fleeing Nazi atrocities, that set sail for Cuba from Hamburg in 1939. After its passengers were denied asylum in Cuba, the ship tragically returned to Europe, hoping to find sanctuary for its passengers between four European countries: Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and England. Out of these passengers, it was mostly those who found asylum in England who survived World War II. The rest, like Josef and his mother, were largely sent to concentration camps after Germany invaded other European countries.

Equally real are the events of 1994 depicted in the novel. After the Soviet Union collapsed, so too did its aid to Cuba, forcing thousands of families like Isabel’s into utter poverty. As the starving populace rioted against dictator Fidel Castro’s police, Castro allowed Cubans to flee to the United States, thus ending the riots in effect. However, because the number of people fleeing Cuba was enormous, the US government was extremely ambiguous about granting them asylum, placing the refugees in a very precarious position.

Meanwhile, the civil war in Syria still continues to precipitate one of the worst humanitarian crises in history. According to Gratz, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues to wage war on his own people. Mahmoud’s city, the once-beautiful Aleppo, is particularly vulnerable, since it houses a large number of rebels opposed to al-Assad. The scale of the devastation in Syria is immense:

According to the United Nations, more than 470,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in 2011. That’s roughly equal to the entire population of Atlanta, Georgia.

Given its historical roots, why did Gratz write the novel as a work of fiction? And why do children lead the novel’s action? For one, fiction enables the reader to inhabit history in a way that textbooks and newsprint cannot accommodate. By focusing on details such as Ruth’s stuffed rabbit, Mahmoud’s counterfeit life jackets, and Isabel’s trumpet, fiction forces readers to view tragedy not as a removed phenomenon, but as something happening daily to people “like us.”

Further, children are made heroes in Refugee precisely because children should not, ideally, have to be heroes. Through the perils and forced courage of his protagonists, Gratz highlights the biggest tragedy of all refugee crises in history: the loss of childhood. Writing of the Syrian crisis, he notes,

In just one week of fighting in September 2016, the United Nations reported the deaths of ninety-six children. That’s like an entire grade level of children dying every week.

Thus, it would be a mistake to interpret Refugee as only a tale about extraordinary, heroic children. The novel’s subtler point is that this extraordinariness itself is terrible. Mahmoud should not have to decide to give away his little sister to save her life, Josef should not have to slap his father to subdue him, and Isabel should not have to scramble to arrange gasoline for a boat to take her family away to possible safety.

Though the three stories are historically discrete at first glance, they are linked by the fates of Ruth, Lito, and the Bisharas. Interestingly, the stories are also tied together through the symbolism of water and boats. All three families make their asylum-seeking journeys on boats through perilous waters. As a narrative device, this has the effect of accentuating the perils of “unusual” transcontinental journeys, which the reader is habituated to consider in terms...

(This entire section contains 1050 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

of air travel.

In Isabel’s story, the water is choppy with sharks, representing the violence and uncertainty of her condition as well as fact: the ninety-mile stretch between Cuba and Florida is known to be shark territory. Mahmoud’s journey is punctuated by icy rain even when he is still on dry land, as in Turkey, where his family scrambles for a dry place to stay. On the sea, Mahmoud is marooned in the freezing Mediterranean, which ultimately capsizes his ramshackle raft. Isabel’s boat, too, tips over, the sea claiming her family’s food and water. In Josef’s story, the very calm of the Atlantic Ocean is menacing, hiding a darker future. Thus, the waters are deceptive for Josef, as is proved when the St. Louis is turned back from the Cuban shore. Josef’s father’s jump into the sea symbolizes his desire to annihilate himself. In Isabel’s journey, Iván is claimed by sharks, which symbolize the life-taking maw of the ocean.

Thus, the sea comes to represent death, chaos, and uncertainty at one level. At another level, however, water represents change, which many of the main characters have to undergo either to survive or to redeem themselves. Señor Castillo, who is passive for much of the action, pulls Isabel into the water at the end of the novel to ensure that she reaches the American coast. Lito atones for the past by treading water and returning to Cuba. Mahmoud learns to shed his anonymity and turn more decisive as his raft flounders in the Mediterranean. Water becomes the agent of change in each of these cases, emphasizing the centrality of adapting to survival.

A large part of the novel’s narrative focuses on boats, which represent tenuous hope. The journey aboard the St. Louis from Hamburg to Havana is a sunny interlude in Josef and Ruth’s troubled childhood. The boat the Castillos have “cobbled” together becomes the center of Isabel’s existence. Even Mahmoud’s precarious raft is a promise of tomorrow. After it capsizes, it is another boat that gives Hana a chance at life, and it is a Greek Coast Guard boat that ultimately rescues Mahmoud’s family. A biblical reference to Noah’s ark as the sanctuary bridging creatures over troubled waters is implicit in the novel’s boat imagery. The frequent dangers that surround the boat underline the fragility of hope in the life of the novel’s asylum-seekers. The St. Louis could not save Josef, just as the Castillos’ boat could not save Iván. The interplay between water and vessel, then, marks the unpredictable nature of a refugee’s journey.