A stunningly ambitious and beautiful debut novel, perfect for fans of Sarah’s Key and All the Light We Cannot See, the story of a twelve-year-old girl’s harrowing experience fleeing Nazi-occupied Germany with her family and best friend, only to discover that the overseas asylum they had been promised is an illusion.
I struggled with this one. I love historical fiction. Wartime historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, but I don’t know about this book in particular. I would recommend it to anyone who is unaware of the events surrounding the S.S. St. Louis, especially High School students. I don’t think it’s mentioned in school curriculum to any level of detail that it should be, at least not in my personal past educational experience.
The plot was developed around a refugee crisis and hones in on the experiences of a little girl named Hannah who flees the Nazi-dictatorship in Germany. It then alternates with the life of a girl named Anna. Their stories are connected mostly in parallel and I had a hard time distinguishing the voices of the characters and with why it was necessary to tell Anna’s story to such extent in this book. There were also overly descriptive details about the scenes rather than the feelings and connections toward them.
I appreciated what the book was about in overall premise, but it was the character development and their behaviors that I didn’t understand. It made it difficult for me to gain a good sense of persuasion and connectivity to the circumstances they faced. I don’t doubt the ethos of Armando Correa, it’s obvious he’s a talented writer and did his research, but there were elements of emotion missing from the thoughts and behaviors of the characters.
As far as content is concerned, the book started out with Hannah’s incredibly intense vitriol toward her mother and that was the opening hook. The story moved so slow after that and I didn’t see where the source of chronic unhappiness stemmed from aside from the discrimination and resulting crisis she was about to face and I’m not convinced that her attitude would have changed at any rate. I got the feeling Hannah as well as her mother were inherently cynical of their circumstances in all light, even during happy times. They lacked vision and were picky about their circumstances even when the alternative could have resulted in broken relationships or even death. I don’t believe readers have to like the character of every book, but writers need to at least give a solid rationale for readers not to like them.
The thoughts and actions of Hannah were told in first person; however, they were met with vocabulary and behaviors that were more adultish in nature than what is reasonable for a little girl of her age. I think Armando Correa had a difficult time understanding relevant developmental milestones and writing from a preteen’s perspective. Hannah’s character lacked value and good judgment in addition to her inability to sympathize with others. Pure ignorance could have been excused by possessing a childlike innocence but that was undermined by the use of such robust vocabulary. She also resorted to day dreams and nostalgic yearnings for her friend Leo. However it was hard to get a good grasp of their relationship and unexpected disengagements throughout the book because of the mixture of juvenile adultism and emotional immaturity that didn’t really fit into any spectrum, whether child, adolescent, or adult.
There were also less developed sub plots and I felt the majority of hardships resulting in emotional, mental, and physical devastation that resulted from the war and Nazi regime was left out. The omission of words like “Nazi” and “Jew” and use of substitutes such as “Ogres” made the message less powerful in my opinion, like a self-censoring attempt to soften the realities of the time and how we perceive them today.
It’s an important and interesting story but I don’t think it was told in the most compelling way. I would like to try reading another book by Armando Correa in the future.