Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Audiobook Review: Refugee by Alan Gratz

Refugee by Alan Gratz. Unabridged audiobook on 7 compact discs. 7 hours, 37 minutes. Read by Michael Goldstrom, Kyla Garcia, Assaf Cohen. Scholastic Audio, July, 2017. 9781338191073. (Review from purchased audiobook.)

When I received the arc of Refugee last summer, I was thrilled, but kept skipping it on the tbr pile because I just knew that it would gut me. I needed to be in a strong emotional place to read and reflect on what I was sure to be an important book. Somehow, I never got there. Recently, a fifth grader ran to me clutching his copy and asking if I had read it. When I said no, he put his book in my hands and said, "You HAVE to read this! Really! You have to!" Chastened, I said that I would. Then looked to see if was available as an audiobook so that I could read through the tears I knew were going to fall.

Gratz has lots of fans at my school, his Projekt 1065 and Prisoner B-3087 are consistently checked out and recommended student-to-student. Personally, I loved a couple of earlier books, Samurai Shortstop and The Brooklyn Nine. Recently, I enjoyed his latest elementary/ low middle grade title, Ban This Book.

Refugee is told from three points-of-view. There is Joseph, who is on the cusp of his thirteenth birthday and whose father was recently released from Auschwitz. The family has been told to leave Germany. They have secured passage on the ship, the St. Louis bound for Cuba with other Jewish families fleeing Nazi Germany.

Then, there is Isabelle, who is fleeing Castro's Cuba in 1994, when the Communist leader announced that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba could, with no repercussions. She, her parents and grandfather and her neighbors pile into a leaky boat to make the perilous 90 mile journey to the coast of Florida.

Finally, there is Mahmoud, a young Syrian boy, who is trying to flee Aleppo with his parents and younger siblings during the Civil War that is raging there right now. His flight is perhaps most perilous having to survive crossing the Mediterranean, then several countries before reaching Germany.

It would've been perfectly reasonable to keep these three stories separate and parallel. Each one is compelling in its own right. Gratz has brought each child's plight to vivid life. It would've made for a perfectly memorable book. That he chose to connect the three stories at the end adds an emotional wallop that, frankly, I don't think I will recover from. I mean that as a compliment. 

All three children face the unthinkable. All three are traumatized, yet push on. All three suffer from incredible guilt over an impossible decision each had to make. Gratz skillfully ratchets up the suspense as he cuts between the stories. Readers will quickly become invested in each child. I got a bit weepy through most of the recording, but was glad to be reading with my ears as the tears flowed pretty continuously through discs six and seven. Mahmoud's story evoked haunting memories of the photos from Aleppo that have shocked the world, notably, the little boy in the ambulance. It was very much on my mind during Mahmoud's story. 

I do believe that the performances of all three narrators heightened the experience of the book because two of the three narrators read with beautifully accented English and also fluently pronounced the Syrian or Spanish words. When I read with my eyes, I read with my own accent. Listening to a narrator who is fluent in both languages means I am not mentally butchering the pronunciation of the foreign language words.  

The Author's Note at the end is not to be missed. Allen Gratz provides historical context, including the importance of the photo I just spoke of, and what is real and fiction in the story as well as places one might donate to help present-day refugees in crisis. This is a first purchase for any library - both the audiobook as well as the hardcover. It would be a spectacular class read or book club book. But don't forget your tissues. Lots of tissues. I will need tissues when I booktalk this book.

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