Sunday, January 16, 2022

37 Days at Sea: Aboard the M.S. St. Louis, 1939 by Barbara Krasner

This is the second book by Barbara Krasner that I have read about the 938 European Jews who set sail in 1939 aboard the M.S. St. Louis hoping to escape the Nazis and find safety in Cuba. The first book was called Liesel's Ocean Voyage. It is a fictionalized story based on the real experiences of Liesel Joseph Loeb (1928-2013) and I highly recommend it, and in fact, I would read it in tandem with 37 Days at Sea to get a broader picture of a voyage that began with so much hope ended in such disappointment. 

Here, Krasner introduces readers to Ruthie Arons, 12, from Breslau, Germany. The decision to leave and eventually settle in America came shortly after Kristallnacht, when their beautiful home was ransacked by Nazis who broke into Jewish homes and businesses all over Germany, stealing, breaking and destroying everything in their path. 

Now, onboard the M.S. St. Louis, missing the family they had to leave behind, Ruthie, a somewhat mischievous girl thinks that  "Adventure/ across the Atlantic Ocean beckons." And indeed it does, when she quickly makes friends with Wolfie, a twelve-year-old Jewish boy traveling with his mother and whose father is already living in Havana.

Secure in the knowledge that they have the necessary papers to enter Cuba, people on the ship enjoy a wonderful voyage of good food, entertainment, and friendliness, including Captain Schroeder. And although the crew wear their NSDAP pins, there is a problem with only one, Kurt Steinfelder. Ruthie's mother suffers from seasickness and her father, an attorney, is busy with some other business, so that leaves her plenty of time to hang out with Wolfie, exploring the ship and getting into mischief: "Grown-up, watch out. We/ are a band of trouble,/ and by we, I mean/ Wolfie and me." (pg 24)

There is a, however, a very concrete reminder of what was left behind in Germany, when a group of men with shaved heads come on board and Ruthie's father must explain to her about concentration camps and the arrest of so many Jewish men on Kristallnacht, including him. Some were released, others sent to camps, released with the promise never to return.

After two weeks at sea, on the fifteenth day, the M.S. St. Louis enters Havana, Cuba but it doesn't take long to realize that there is more trouble ahead for these Jewish refugees. No one is allowed to disembark and enter Cuba, including Wolfie and his mother, even though his father is already there. Negotiations take place, the United States refuses to help and eventually the ship is forced to return to Europe. Needless to say, the trip back is nothing like the trip to Cuba.

37 Days at Sea is written in free verse from Ruthie's first person point of view, which gives it an interesting perspective. Ruthie may have experienced some of the cruelty of the Nazis in Breslau, but she was younger and her parents seem to have been able to shield her from some of the worst events. The trip to Cuba and the return to Europe makes this a kind of end of innocence story, but the beginning of understanding the seriousness of what was happening to the Jews in Europe for Ruthie (and hopefully today's reader).    

Krasner used a few different poetic forms, and although the free verse is sometimes a little off, it is still an important book for young readers, especially in the lower middle grades. She really knows how to build the excitement and expectation of landing in Cuba and being free to come and go as they please as the ship travels to its destination, and the disappointment and dejection the passengers feel when they are forced to go back. The first half of the books is devoted to the trip to Cuba, and the second half covers the trip back, which I think is an important part of the story to include. 

Back matter includes an Author's Note, a Timeline of Events, suggestions for Further Information including Films, Oral Testimonies, and Books.

This book was a digital version purchased for my personal library.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Stealing Home by J. Torres, illustrated by David Nmisato


Stealing Home by J. Torres,
illustrated by David Namisato
Kids Can Press, 2021, 112 pages

It's summer 1941 and the Asahi Baseball team is the pride of Powell Street in Vancouver, BC, "the champions of the Japanese community." For young Sandy Saito and his dad, Dr. Saito, that means going to games together and cheering their heroes on and later, playing catch in the backyard together. 

But all that changes on December 7, 1941 when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. Suddenly, Sandy's dad was short tempered and didn't want to play catch anymore. The kids in school, who had been Sandy's friends, turn on him, calling him names and refusing to let any Japanese kids play baseball with them, even throwing rocks at them. 

Soon, Japanese persons are forced out of some areas of British Columbia and moved to "camps" in old, abandoned mining settlements, including the Saitos, but not before Dr. Saito goes out on a house call and doesn't come home. All his family knows is that the government sent him to "where he was needed most,"
leaving Mrs. Saito, Sandy and his younger brother Ty to cope with being relocated to an internment camp in the middle of the Canadian wilderness, with no electricity or running water. 

Adjusting to their new life isn't easy, but eventually Sandy and Ty make friends and have some fun. But it is all work for their mother and the other women, who need to find ways to keep their children warm in the coming winter, plus they now have to share their small shelter with another family, including a baby. However, it turns out that some of the players for the Asahi Baseball team are also at the camp. Is it possible that baseball can provide some sense of normalcy and happiness for Sandy and the other people in the camp?

J. Torres provides readers with a very clear picture of what life was like for Canadians of Japanese descent after the United States entered the war, in this graphic novel told in the first person from Sandy Saito's perspective. Interestingly, the Canada had entered the war immediately after Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939 and yet had left Japanese persons living on its west coast along until Pearl Harbor. 

Torres has really captured the fear and confusion that Sandy felt about why things changed so abruptly because of events he doesn't completely understand, and his hurt feelings as his beloved father becomes more stressed and short-tempered. 

I find it interesting that baseball played such an important role in the lives of both Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians during the war. Perhaps because it is a game of skill and both players and spectators can really get lost in, enabling them to escape their new reality of losing everything they had worked for and being put into slapped together internment camps in the middle of nowhere.

Stealing Home is a wonderful vehicle for introducing younger middle grade readers to this part of the history of WWII. I read a black and white ARC and so I can't comment on the final art, but the illustrations are detailed and not frighteningly graphic. 

You can learn more about the Asahi Baseball Team HERE

 This book was an eARC gratefully received from Edelweiss+

Sunday, January 2, 2022

The Blitz Bus by Glen Blackwell

The Blitz Bus by Glen Blackwell
Zoetrope Books, 2021, 218 pages
NetGalley E-ARC 

When his teacher assigns her class to write a fictional diary entry of a WWII evacuee, Jack, 12, just can't think of anything to write. Somehow, the war seems so long ago and he just can't relate. And now, he's going to be late meeting his best friend, Emmie Langford after school. Being a good friend, Emmie has been waiting at their bus stop when Jack finally shows up.

Everything seems normal until they reached their stop and notice a new blue storefront with a mannequin wearing a long coat and a gas mask in the window. Suddenly, there is a flash of light and it begins to rain heavily, so they head to the nearby Tube station for shelter, along with everyone else.

Everything at the Tube station feels like it's out of time, causing Emmie to think they are in the midst of a film set in 1940. But gradually she and Jack realize they have landed in the midst of a WWII air raid, instead, and that somehow they have traveled back in time. With no money, no food, and no friends, Jack and Emmie begin to try to figure out how they can return to their own time. Along the way, they become friends with Jan, a Polish boy who arrived in England a few years earlier on the Kindertransport. The three discover an old Anderson shelter behind a bombed and abandoned house as Jan helps them navigate this unfamiliar London. When they discover what appears someone trying to build a makeshift radio, they are convinced the mysterious boy/man they have noticed is a German spy. 

The German spy turns out to be Stan, who also arrived in London on the Kindertransport, but unlike Jan, whose foster family is quite kind, Stan's treats him terribly. As they become friends with Jan and Stan, can Jack and Emmie trust them with their secret and perhaps get some ideas of how they can return to the own time? Or will they be stranded in 1940 forever?

The Blitz Bus is an interesting time travel novel that points out how as things recede into history, they don't carry the same level of interest or impact that they once had. Jack may live in East London, which had been heavily bombed and damaged during the war, but he's interested in video games and football, not history. I thought that Blackwell portrayed what London in the Blitz was like quite well, layering it with the different experiences of the two Kindertransport kids, their loneliness and homesickness, emotions Jack comes to appreciate firsthand. 

The novel also points out how people were so suspicious of foreigners during the war that they often suspected them of being spies, just as Jack, Emmie, and Jan thought that about Stan. 

Interestingly, the Tube station that Emmie and Jack shelter in was the Bethnal Green Station which was destroyed in 1943, killing 173 people. Blackwell includes more about it in his back matter, that also includes information on the Kindertransport, and instructions for making the kind of radio out things found, similar to the radio Stan builds to listen to new about Poland. 

I have to admit that I was hoping that once they returned to their own time, Jack and Emmie would try to find out what happened to Jan and Stan, whether they were living, and if they were, did they remember their two time traveling friends? 

Readers looking for a time travel adventure, as well as those who enjoy historical fiction set in WWII will no doubt enjoy reading about Jack and Emmie's exploits in this imaginative novel.

This book was an eARC gratefully received from NetGalley