The historical novel Refugee weaves the stories of three refugee families fleeing their homes in different parts of the world and during different time periods: Germany in the 1930s, Cuba in the 1990s and Syria just a few years ago.
A group of Dorothy's List readers gathered at Montpelier’s Kellogg-Hubbard Library to discuss Refugee, and they took time to ponder this question: If you had to leave your home forever, but could only bring one suitcase, what would you pack?
Money, a cell phone and something to keep warm were all objects mentioned, but twelve-year-old Bethany Hemenway-Brush suggested another idea: "I picked things that are more ... of sentimental value for me than, like, what I would need. So I picked my great-grandma's jewelry box."
FROM NPR — People share what they brought with them when fleeing conflict [Dec. 2018]
The book's three main characters — Josef, Isabel and Mahmoud — and their families all flee their respective home countries in Gratz's novel. And Bethany wondered why, out of all the refugee situations throughout history, the author chose these three storylines.
Bethany Hemenway-Brush: "Why did you choose those three places, since there’s so many places? Was there anything that stood out in particular for you for those three?"
He said these three journeys really spoke to him.
Alan Gratz: "I started with Josef’s story, and the story of the MS St. Louis. I was already writing books about World War II, [and] I was familiar with the story of the MS St. Louis – a ship that had more than 900 Jewish refugees, who left Germany in 1939 looking for refuge, and they were turned away from Cuba. They were turned away from the United States. They were turned away from Canada and ended up going back to Europe just in time for World War II to break out. And many of them ended up back in concentration camps where many of them died. And I wanted to tell this story."
But, Gratz said, there wouldn’t be a whole lot of action in an entire book written about people who were stuck on a ship for two weeks.
The second story line came to him while he was on a Florida vacation with his family.
Alan Gratz: "And we got up one morning and we said, ‘Hey, let’s go for a walk on the beach.’ And that is where we found a raft that people had taken to come to the United States. It was homemade. It was made out of, like, metal from a shed roof and a motor stripped out of a tractor and hammered together with plywood and two-by-fours. Inside there were wet clothes and empty bottles of water and half-eaten bags of candy.
"Nobody was onboard the raft when we found it. I hope they already made it here to the United States. I’ve never known what happened to them. But seeing that raft, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I doing? Why am I writing a book about refugees 75 years ago when we have refugees right here, right now, like 100 yards away from where I was sleeping last night? Why am I not telling that story?”"
That experience led Gratz to write the story of Isabel, a girl who escapes Cuba with her family in 1994 by taking a homemade raft to America.
Meanwhile, Gratz said the Syrian civil war and resulting refugee crisis were all over the news. That’s what inspired the story of Mahmoud, a Syrian boy whose family escapes to Europe in 2015.
Alan Gratz: "And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, look at what these people are going through. Why am I telling a story in the '90s? Why am I telling a story in the '30s when we’ve got this?’ And I thought, 'Wait a minute. Why do I have to tell one story? Why do I have to pick one of them? What if I told all three of those stories, and I wove them together?'"
A big part of weaving the stories together is figuring out how the book will end, and one reader had a question about the novel's conclusion.
John Widener: "At the end of Refugee where you sort of had all of the story lines, like, collide, I guess — were you trying to send like a message with that or something?"
Without giving up any spoilers, Gratz said, he was absolutely trying to send a message.
Alan Gratz: "So, before I ever wrote the book, I knew how it was going to end. … The only way I knew that I could write this book, that I should write this book, is when I realized that I could find connections between these families – that I could connect refugees from the '30s in Germany and the '90s in Cuba and the present day in Syria. And, so I knew the ending going in. And, yes, I had a very specific idea of what that would mean."
One of the themes throughout the book is the idea of a better tomorrow. And Gratz said that’s also a big part of the book’s message.
Alan Gratz: "The real lesson, I hope, of the book is that we’ve been doing the same thing — making the same mistakes — generation after generation. And that if we don’t do something now to change that, tomorrow’s gonna be the same for the next group of refugees, wherever they’re from and whatever they’re suffering from and wherever they’re trying to get to."
One fourteen-year-old wondered if that lesson that Gratz described was his motivation for writing the book.
Maya Elliott: "When you wrote Refugee, was it your main purpose to educate people about what was and what is happening around the world? Or did you have another reason to write Refugee?"
Alan Gratz: "My first thing I ever think about when I’m writing a book, is making sure that it’s a book that nobody wants to put down, making sure that it’s a book that’s entertaining. Yes, clearly I had things I wanted people to learn about refugees and the world in this book and things I was trying to say.
"But my number one goal when writing Refugee — and any of my books, really — is to make it an entertaining story. To make it one that you just can’t wait to read the next chapter."
One twelve-year-old wondered how long it took Gratz to write a book that’s essentially three different stories, from three different time periods.
Noelle Westbom: “How long did it take to write Refugee? Did it take longer than another book because it requires so much research?"
Alan Gratz: "It took me about a year and nine months to write this book. That’s somewhat average for me for a book, but a lot more of this book was spent on research than it was on the writing. And because I had three different time periods – and three different people and places – I had to do a lot of different kinds of research."
Gratz said he used books at his public library to research the story of the Jewish refugees in the 1930s. For the story of the Cuban refugees in the 1990s, he relied on interviews with first generation Cuban-Americans. And he turned to contemporary news reporting for the present-day Syrian refugee story.
Alan Gratz: "And so each of the three different time periods and each of the three different stories had very different kinds of research. And that was new for me and difficult. So, the other part of it was, I was doing research right up until the moment that the book went to press. Like, usually I finish writing a book and my editor and I, she helps me work on revising it, and then we’re done. But this one, things kept changing in the world. Things kept happening.
"Right before President Obama left office, he ended the "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy, which I had talked about in the book. And so, I wanted to go back into my endnotes and talk about that. Then, of course, we had a new president whose first action in office was to specifically ban Syrian refugees coming to the United States. And then there were states suing him over that, and I wanted to put that in the book.
"So, I had a lot of things that were still happening in the world that I wanted to get into this book. And, basically, we just had to finally say, ‘Enough. Things keep changing but we have to go and print this book now.'"
One twelve-year-old who read those endnotes that Gratz described had a question about the author's research.
Ben Wetherell: “So at the end of the book you had the real people who you had based your characters off of. How did you find out about those people?"
Gratz said all of his characters’ experiences were based on things that happened to real people that he uncovered during his research through books, interviews and news accounts.
Alan Gratz: "So, Josef is not a real kid from the MS St. Louis. Isabel is not a real girl who came to America on a raft. Mahmoud is not a real boy who left Syria with his family. But all the things that happened to them are based on things that really happened to real people.
"I didn’t want to make anything up and, honestly, I didn’t have to. … So, they are amalgamations. They're combinations of real people, so that I didn’t have to be bound to one person’s story and I felt like I could tell a larger picture of each of those stories by combining people’s stories."
Our last question comes a reader who said Refugee has inspired her to work with friends at school to raise money for organizations that help refugees around the world.
Maya Elliott: "Did you know that Refugee would inspire people to make a difference and help? Are you surprised by the response of some of your readers?"
Alan Gratz: “I did not know if Refugee would have the impact that it has had. I wrote it hoping that people would read it and that it would open their hearts and minds to refugees, and maybe change some hearts and minds. But the reaction to Refugee has been astounding. … People are raising money for UNICEF. They are donating things to their local refugee aid organizations. They are speaking up and talking. One whole class that read Refugee called up their Congressperson and told them, ‘Hey, we think that refugees should be allowed in the United States.'
"So, the response has just been amazing. So yes, I wrote it hoping that people would do that. And it has exceeded my wildest expectations.”
Special thanks to Nicole Westbom, Kellogg-Hubbard Library’s children’s programming and circulation librarian.
Refugee is one of two books by Alan Gratz nominated for this year's Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award. Dorothy's List readers in Montpelier also had questions about Gratz's other title on the list: Ban This Book. A special bonus podcast on that book is available now.
Next month we’re reading Last Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson. It’s the first book in his science fiction series Chronicle of the Dark Star. Find more Dorothy's List episodes here.