Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Power of Ordinary People to Help Refugees
Throughout the novel, Gratz shows that even though changing the political circumstances that lead to refugee crises may seem beyond the power of ordinary people, individuals do have the power to help refugees. The conditions that force the main characters to leave their home countries are the kind of large problems most individuals do not have much power to change. Ending the war in Syria, creating a stable independent economy in Cuba, or ending the Nazi death camps require action on the part of whole governments. In that sense, it is easy for people to feel helpless when considering the plight of refugees. However, Gratz shows that individuals do have the power to improve the lives of refugees through small acts of kindness. Samih Nasseer, the Palestinian in Turkey who offers to let Mahmoud’s family sleep in his car dealership, helps them by giving them a ride to meet their boat. The tourists on the beach in the Bahamas help Isabel’s family by giving them small gifts of food, water, and aspirin to bring Mami’s fever down. Even the Hitler Youth boy who discovers Josef in the German section of the train helps him by walking him back to the Jewish section rather than reporting him to the authorities who might have arrested him.
Having a previous personal experience with refugee life inspires some to help, because they know first hand the power individuals have to make a positive difference. Ruthie survives the war because an old woman in France took the risk of claiming Ruthie as her relative when Nazis came looking for Jews. Ruthie pays this gift forward decades later when she welcomes Mahmoud’s family into her home. Her gift to Waleed of the rabbit she has made to look like her own stuffed bunny, Bitsy, shows that she remembers what it is like to be a child refugee. Samih Nasseer helps the family in Turkey in part because he remembers his own experiences coming to the country as a refugee from Palestine. Lito sacrifices his own freedom to help the family reach the United States out of a sense of regret over failing to do more to help the passengers of the St. Louis when he visited the ship as a young police officer. He regrets that by obeying the rules of his job, he missed the opportunity to help save their lives. This recognition that changing the world had been within his power had he chosen to take the opportunity inspires him to jump overboard, distracting the U.S. Coast Guard long enough for the rest of the family to get safely ashore in Miami.
The Lasting Effects of Traumatic Events
All the main characters and their families have suffered traumas, in their countries of origin and on their refugee journeys, which continue to affect them long after the danger has passed. In the novel, Gratz explores different responses to trauma. Some of the characters are so damaged it is hard to imagine their recovery. At the point that Aaron jumps overboard and is separated from his family, he is so consumed by his terrifying memories of the concentration camp that he can barely interact with the world. His experiences at Dachau have pushed him to the brink of madness. Others, like Fatima, are able to keep moving forward, as demonstrated by her loving response to Mahmoud’s apology for having given Hana to people on the passing boat. Waleed begins the book so emotionally shut down that Mahmoud worries for him, but his eyes light up when Ruthie gives him the stuffed rabbit she made for him, an example of the resilience of children and and indication of his likely return to a more normal childhood delight in toys now that he is safe. Lito and Isabel are both traumatized by Abuelita’s death in the hurricane, but they support each other so that they can carry on. Likewise, Isabel is able to incorporate the loss of Iván into the “song” of her journey to Cuba, wearing his baseball hat while she plays the salsa version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that marks the coda to that section of her life. Although his death and other events in their ocean crossing were traumatic, she is ready to start a new song. By showing the lasting effects of trauma and the difficulty many characters have in overcoming it, Gratz develops a deeper understanding of the struggles refugees face.
The Physical Dangers of Displacement
Gratz emphasizes the physical dangers faced by the refugee families during their journeys in order to create a more complete picture of refugee life after their initial displacement. The development of this theme heightens the tension of the plot and demonstrates the difficulty each family has reaching a safe haven. Although each family leaves home expecting greater safety, the journey to a place of refuge presents dangers they did not anticipate. Isabel’s family imagines leaving Cuba for the U.S. will free them from hunger and police brutality, but they do not expect to face shark attacks and near-drowning on the way. Mahmoud’s father gives an optimistic prediction of their rapid travel to Germany but does not forsee the mortal danger his family will face, from gunfights in Syria to nearly drowning in the Mediterranean and being imprisoned in Hungary. Josef’s family seems to have found a comfortable escape from Nazi Germany aboard the St. Louis, yet in the end the ship proves no escape at all, and Josef and Rachel are sent to a death camp. Gratz shows how plans go awry and how refugees are often at the mercy of others on their way to freedom and safety. This theme shows the high stakes of life for the refugees, for whom the dangers of life in their home countries are rivaled by the dangers they face on the road to freedom.