“‘You can live life as a ghost, waiting for death to come, or you can dance,’ she told him. ‘Do you understand?’”

This quotation occurs in the chapter “Josef: Off The American Coast—1939,” as the passengers aboard the St. Louis wait to see if they will be allowed to land in the U.S. or be forced back to Europe. The mood on the ship is full of despair, yet Josef’s mother puts on her best clothes and goes to the dance hall, where she dances alone until Josef finds her there. Josef is baffled by her behavior, when they have lost Aaron and their hope of safety in Cuba. In that context, dancing seems frivolous to him. Rachel responds to his refusal to join her by telling him about the loss of her brother in World War I. This scene illustrates the theme in the book that life carries on even during a crisis. Just as people in the Turkish refugee camps celebrate weddings, Josef had his bar mitzvah on the ship, and Lito and Amara dance in their tiny boat, Rachel’s decision to dance in the face of looming disaster shows a decision to embrace the pleasure she can find in life, even when the future looks bleak.

“‘I’m from Cuba,’ Isabel said, ‘but my little brother was born here. He’s an American. And soon I will be too.’”

In the chapter “Isabel: Miami Beach, Florida—1994,” as Isabel wades out of the surf onto American soil, holding her newborn brother Mariano. Throughout the novel, Isabel has worried over her Cuban identity, fearing that not being able to count the clave means she is not fully Cuban, and over the many unknown aspects of American life, including violence and homelessness. In this moment, as a woman on the beach asks if she is Cuban, Isabel proudly claims her Cuban identity and expresses confidence in her ability to create a new home in the United States. This scene demonstrates Gratz’s theme of the resilience of refugee children, as Isabel shows that while suffering the loss of her best friend and many other terrifying aspects of the ocean crossing, she nevertheless maintains the determination that led her to leave Cuba in the first place. Each of the families in the book leaves a dangerous homeland in search of a place to be free, and each, like Isabel in this scene, must find the optimism and strength to claim a new place as home. 

“Wearing that uniform turned boys into monsters.”

In the chapter titled, “Josef: Berlin, Germany—1939,” Josef is discovered by a member of the Hitler Youth in the “German” part of the train, where Jews are not allowed. When the Hitler Youth sees Josef’s Star of David armband fall from his pocket, Josef is terrified, because he has personally witnessed how joining a group empowered to torment others can create bullies even from friends. Josef’s fear emphasizes Gratz’s theme throughout the book of the ways ordinary people can become monsters when encouraged by the government to hate groups excluded from power. Josef’s best friend, Klaus, joins Hitler Youth because there is social pressure on Germany families to sign their boys up, not because they personally agree with the Nazis. However, once Klaus is in that uniform, he falls in with the group’s behaviors. He gives Josef a sympathetic look after their teacher humiliates him and calls him inferior to “real” Germans, but Klaus nevertheless joins the other Hitler Youth boys in beating his friend up after school. Although the boy on the train does not report Josef to the Gestapo, Josef’s immediate fear of him shows that he has learned already that the power boys gain by joining Hitler Youth makes them dangerous.