Weaving together narratives from three different times and places, Alan Gratz’s Refugee offers a frank and moving account of the hopes and struggles of refugees the world over. Effortlessly melding the historical and the contemporary, Gratz’s insightful novel will intrigue children and parents alike, leaving them talking—and thinking—long after they’ve finished the last page.
Having written plays, television, steampunk, historical fiction, and on and on, how, and why, did you decide to write Refugee?
I’ve been really lucky to have a career where I’ve been free to write books about whatever I’m interested in—history, mystery, fantasy, sports—and have editors want to publish my stories. I tended to be all over the map with my books until Prisoner B-3087. That book, based on the true story of a man named Jack Gruener, who survived 10 different Nazi concentration camps as a boy, proved to be an enormous hit with middle school readers. I got so many letters from young readers asking for more stories about World War II, which led a couple of years later to Projekt 1065, a book about a boy who is a spy in the Hitler Youth.
Refugee is an extension—an evolution?—of the work I did in Prisoner, Projekt and Code of Honor, a contemporary thriller that deals with issues of what it means to be Middle Eastern in today’s America. I heard a great podcast with Jordan Peele, the writer and director of Get Out, where he called his work “social thrillers.” I love that description, and I like to think that’s a great way to describe what I’m writing now. Refugee is a book that tackles a real-life issue—the difficult lives of refugees from different eras and different parts of the world—in a story that is so action-packed that (I hope) young readers can’t put it down.
History is full of stories of forced expulsions, or people fleeing for their lives or for better lives. How did you decide to focus on Nazi Germany, Castro’s Cuba and the plight of modern-day Syrians?
It was while looking at further stories of World War II I could write about that I ran into the story of the MS St. Louis, a real ship that carried more than 900 Jewish refugees trying to escape Nazi Germany in 1938. I was still trying to find a way into that story when my family and I came across a homemade raft on a Florida beach that someone had used to come to America in the night. That, combined with the nightly news reports about the Syrian refugee crisis, gave me the idea to write one novel that would combine, compare and contrast all three at once.
There are, unfortunately, many other refugees crises (both historical and current) that I could have written about. But those three spoke to me personally, and had clear parallels I could draw to link them through time.
With the war in Syria still raging, this book could not be more timely. Looking back on how things have developed since you completed this book, in terms of Syria, as well as the debates around refugees and immigration more generally, what do you hope young readers take away from Refugee?
My number one hope with Refugee is that young readers see these people and understand what their lives are like before, during and after their journeys. Logically, I knew that refugees were coming to this country every day seeking the safety of a new home. But I had let myself forget until I saw that raft on the beach. Forget or ignore, if I’m being honest with myself. I hope that Refugee does for young readers what that raft did for me—brings the world of refugees to life so that their plight becomes visible, either again or for the first time.
Unlike many stories for young readers, the villains in Refugee are rarely pure evil personified. Taking the Nazis that appear, as an example, we see some flatly deplorable characters, but then you also give us the Nazi youth who doesn’t rat Josef out for not wearing his arm-band. Were you conscious about that—about not painting any one group as totally inhuman?
It’s so easy to judge an entire country or race or community on the actions of their government, or their religious leaders, or their most vocal agitators. And I don’t mean in any way to excuse the actions of the Nazis, or to claim that most of the German people were just following orders. That such institutional evil was allowed not only to begin but to thrive is a scar on the German peoples’ collective soul that may never go away. (And we Americans have our own scars to bear.) But when we begin to cast our enemies as all-of-a-kind, one-size-fits-all, it allows us also to do things like lump all refugees and immigrants into similar stereotypes and molds. Throughout the book, I challenge my young readers to see each character as a unique individual, each of whom has strengths and weaknesses and dreams and fears.
What do you think refugees’ experiences have to teach us about the relations between majorities and minorities today, whether they be racial, ethnic, religious, gender or some other grouping?
By showing refugees from three different places in the world, with three different cultures and three different religions, I hope that readers will understand that at some point, everyone was the “other.” One of the things I tell students every time I talk about Refugee is that, unless they are Native American, they are all descended from immigrants. Whether your family came over on the Mayflower or on a raft last year, you’re from a family of immigrants. We forget that. We also forget that at almost every point in this country’s history various immigrant groups have been met with prejudice, scorn and violence—Germans, French, Irish Catholics, Japanese, Chinese, Italians, Poles, Africans, Mexicans. But can you imagine America today without the contributions of all those groups? And what will America be like in 100 years without the contributions of the Middle Eastern immigrants we’re turning away for purely nativist reasons? If history is any lesson, America will be lesser for it, to be sure.
How we treat people who are different from ourselves, especially when those people are religiously, politically, racially or sexually very different from us, says a lot about who we are as human beings. Will we embrace the other, even when he or she is alien to us, or will we hate that which we don’t understand? I hope that by showing how different people from vastly different backgrounds were all treated the same by different people in different eras, young readers will begin to see that any one of us could be the “other” in need of help with just the slightest change in our fortunes.
I love how your book, by focusing on three different refugees, shows how diverse and yet similar the experience of refugees can be. What made you decide to have three narratives and three protagonists instead of one? What do you think was gained from this approach? What might have been lost?
What I gained was perspective. Historical context. I think if it had been just one story, a reader could have said, “Well, that’s how everyone treated the Jews in the 1930s”; “Of course Cubans want to escape Castro, that’s a unique situation”; or, “What’s happening in Syria right now is crazy.” But by showing all three stories—and more importantly, drawing parallels between them—I could show that these aren’t unique situations. Every story may have different details, but they are essentially the same. There’s a refrain in the book: “Tomorrow. Mañana.” Each of the refugee families says it in some way. They say it like a mantra for a better tomorrow. But I’m also, as an author, saying that unfortunately, tomorrow is going to be just like today—someone, somewhere is going to leave their home seeking help, and they’re going to be turned away. Unless we break the cycle. With just one of those three stories, I would have lost that message—and that’s one of the most important things I’m trying to say with Refugee.
As heart-wrenching as parts of this novel are, for two out of the three protagonists, the novel ends if not happily, at least on a relatively hopeful note. In this fraught political climate, was it important for you to encourage young readers to keep hoping for a better future?
Yes. I’m a naturally hopeful person. I like to think the best of people, and I always expect the world will (over time—if not in the short term!) get better and better. I could never write a book as hopeless The Chocolate War (which I literally hurled across the room at a wall when I finished it!). I don’t require a Hollywood ending for every story; I’m not that naive. But I cannot write a book in which there is no hope. What kind of message does that send? I don’t sugar-coat anything, and each family sees its share of real tragedy. Their struggles are real and hard. But I hope to show that with perseverance, luck and the kindness of strangers, there can be a hopeful ending.
What upcoming releases do you have planned? And what project are you currently working on?
I’m working on a book right now called Grenade about the Battle of Okinawa. I got to visit Japan a few years back, and while I was there I met an old man who had been a young boy on Okinawa when the Americans invaded toward the end of World War II. The day of the invasion, he and the other middle school boys were pulled out of school by the Japanese army, and each one of them was given a grenade and told to go off into the countryside and not come back until they’d each killed an American. That’s my first chapter. That book is slated to come out in the fall of 2018.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Refugee.