Summary: Josef / Just Outside Havana Harbor-1939 / 18 days from home

Josef’s father’s confusion and paranoia increase, and he stacks furniture against the door of the cabin. Josef’s mother orders Ruthie to go to the pool and then leaves to get a sleeping draught from the doctor to give to her husband. Josef does not want to be left alone with his father. When his mother returns, she is dizzy and tired. After she told the doctor that the sleeping draught was for her (to hide her husband’s insanity), the doctor had her drink it. She falls asleep, and Josef is left to care for both his parents. Josef’s father describes to Josef how the guards at Dachau made all of the prisoners watch as they drowned a different prisoner each night. After Joseph’s father finally falls asleep, Josef goes to find Ruthie and bring her back to the cabin. When Josef returns to the cabin, his father is missing. After frantically searching the decks, he discovers that his father has jumped overboard.

Summary: Isabel / Somewhere on the Caribbean Sea-1994 / 3 days from home

The storm passes, and Isabel wakes up to the sun shining. Isabel’s mother is sick, but Isabel’s father and Luis finally get the engine started again. They see land on the horizon, and hills and trees as they approach. A pier they steer toward lies by a fancy café with white tourists, but there are also two Black men in white uniforms, speaking a language that they do not understand. They have reached the Bahamas, and they are told that if they get out of their boat, they will be detained and sent back to Cuba. Lito says that he will disembark with Isabel’s mother, but Isabel’s mother insists that she does not want to go back to Cuba. The tourists at the café give them snacks, bottles of water, and some aspirin before they set out across the ocean again.

Summary: Mahmoud / Somewhere on the Mediterranean Sea-2015 / 11 days from home

Mahmoud’s mother is filled with grief over giving away Hana. Mahmoud tries to help her swim, but he is cold and exhausted. Mahmoud takes the life jacket from a refugee that is floating face down and says a funeral prayer for the man. He puts the jacket on his mother, to make it easier to keep them both afloat.

Summary: Josef / Just Outside Havana Harbor-1939 / 18 days from home

There is a loud siren on the ship, and Josef yells for someone on the boat to help his father. One of the Cuban police officers removes his hat and gun and jumps overboard. A lifeboat is dropped from the St. Louis, and several boats are sent from the shore in response to the siren. The Cuban policeman helps Josef’s father into one of the shore boats, but Josef’s father struggles against them, yelling that he would rather die. The policemen subdue Josef’s father in the small boat, while Josef thinks that the man who returned from Dachau is not the father he remembers—that man is gone.

Summary: Isabel / Somewhere Between the Bahamas and Florida-1994 / 4 days from home

The boat continues to fall apart. Only the sign at the bottom of the boat, with a picture of Fidel Castro’s face, remains completely intact. Isabel bails water while thinking of Castro’s slogan, “Fight against the impossible and win.” The adults in the boat start arguing with one another, but Amara tells them to stop acting like children. They take a water break and decide to reduce weight by having two people get into the water and hold on to the edge of the boat. They will take turns in the water, so that everyone can have a chance to cool off.

Summary: Mahmoud / Somewhere on the Mediterranean Sea-2015 / 11 days from home

Mahmoud hears the sound of a motor in the distance and turns on the cell phone that he grabbed earlier. He and his mother are rescued by a Greek Coast Guard ship that has already picked up Waleed and Mahmoud’s father. When they reach the island of Lesbos, they see large hills made of life vests, abandoned by hundreds of thousands of refugees. There are also bodies on the shore, including a child, but it is not Hana. Mahmoud’s father instructs him to search the dead bodies for any shoes that might fit the family.


The false hopes raised in the hearts of Isabel’s family and the Castillos when they sight land are dashed when the officer on the beach tells them they are in the Bahamas, where landing means immediate deportation to Cuba. This scene is an example in the book of the cruelty of laws intended to keep migrants out. Isabel notes how much room there is at the beach, where everyone is happy and relaxed, and questions how allowing one more Cuban family to live there could be a problem. The cruelty of the laws turning them back to the danger of the ocean are a contrast with the kindness and generosity of the individual people on the beach. The tourists help pull the boat to the dock before the officer pushes it away, a motion that represents both the refusal of the nation of the Bahamas to accept migrants and the mercy of the individual officer, who is trying his best to give them an opportunity to avoid being sent back to Cuba. When they decide not to land, the tourists give them water, food, and aspirin to help Mami’s fever, examples of the generosity of individuals even when governments behave in cruel ways.

The funeral prayers Mahmoud says for the dead man whose life jacket he takes represent the small acts people can take to remember the humanity of refugees and grant them dignity even in death. This moment is a continuation of the motif throughout the book of religious ceremonies giving meaning to people’s lives. Mahmoud realizes as he begins to take the life jacket that without its floatation, the man’s body will sink into the sea, meaning he will never get a traditional Islamic burial. Although he is exhausted, desperate, and on the edge of death by drowning himself, Mahmoud grants the unknown man the dignity of a funeral prayer, something he knows by heart after living through years of war in Syria. He considers this an act of duty, even though the man is a stranger. Recognizing the shared humanity of the dead man even after seeing so many die shows that war has not made Mahmoud numb to the suffering of others. In this moment, he recognizes the humanity of his fellow refugees.

The mountains of life jackets Mahmoud sees on the beach in Lesbos represent the hundreds of thousands of refugees that have made the crossing before him. This symbol is an example of the theme in the book of enormous and ongoing refugee crises. Gratz uses the life jackets to illustrate the sheer number of refugees leaving the Middle East and crossing the Mediterranean to Lesbos, making the difficult and dangerous crossing because it is more dangerous to remain in war-torn countries. Gratz compares the mountains of life jackets on the island to the piles of rubble in Aleppo. Just as the piles of rubble are evidence of the war, the piles of life jackets and the stream of refugees are the inevitable consequence of conflicts that make it too dangerous for migrants to remain at home.

Mahmoud’s father’s request that he check the bodies on the beach at Lesbos for shoes that will fit the family illustrates how refugee life forces people to balance practical needs with emotional ones. In this moment, Youssef has comforted first Mahmoud and then Fatima for the loss of Hana. While the family is heartbroken and stunned, they nevertheless have a long journey ahead of them. Youssef must divide his attention between caring for his family’s emotional needs and thinking of their practical needs. Ordinarily taking shoes from a corpse would be horrifying and potentially a desecration of the body. However, in this instance, the family’s practical need for shoes must come ahead of ordinary social norms. While Fatima grieves, Youssef makes plans for their continuing journey, even without Hana. The shoes represent the hard reality of the choices necessary to carry the rest of his family to safety.