The story of three refugees (and their families) trying to escape, respectively, 1938 Berlin, 1994 Havana, and 2015 Aleppo, Refugee does not soften things just because it is intended for a young adult audience. It is engaging and well-paced. Gratz has clearly done his research, but he doesn’t overwhelm the plot with it. And though it’s fairly obvious how it will happen, the three stories matter here. They are integrated in clever and relevant ways; this is not just three parallel stories on the same topic. Gratz uses them to show that there are elements of each refugee story that are repeated, and the coming-of-age moments are legitimate and honest. If this became a movie (as written), it would have a hard time staying PG-13. There are some extremely tough moments, though one is (thankfully) off-camera, as it were. Some background knowledge would be useful for readers, but I think this is the kind of book that would prompt readers to search for it themselves. Gratz’s notes after the end of the book are a great place to start. This is a really strong piece of work and certainly makes me curious about Gratz’s other work.
Alan Gratz’s site
Based on my annotations, I found myself engaged and thought I understood some things for roughly the first 1/4 of the book. After that, I found this difficult to follow, in part because there are so many short-hand allusions to historical events with which I am unfamiliar. I think I understood the terms of the manifesto. So many of them have become adopted (misused?) by other thinkers.
There is a great deal of power to the ideas they present here, but the attempts at applying them (such as they’ve manifested themselves in historical examples I do understand – at least a little bit) made me want to read the sequel to this, if you will. How would Marx & Engels respond to those who have tried to execute (deliberate word choice) their ideas?
I’m glad I read this, or at least tried to. But as several people suggested (and the suggestion seems especially appropriate given the content), it’s probably best read as part of a discussion group. It was hard to grapple with it on my own.
I admit that I didn’t know what to expect from this book. I’d heard about Ms. Southgate’s walk long before I finally found the book, and the distance involved just staggered me. The book is subtitled “A Grandmother’s 519-mile Underground Railroad Walk.” I am not sure who wrote the comment – Southgate or Stewart – but I think they were right when they said the book is part-memoir, part-history, and part-travel book. And I loved all three parts. I had no idea of the extent of Ohio’s connection to the Underground Railroad and, well, Ms. Southgate made me want to follow her path (though I will probably spend more time in the car than she did). I learned so much about specific individuals involved in the Underground Railroad, mostly black and some white, and this is what I think many of us need – a reminder that this was not just a concept and not just Harriet Tubman. These were human beings taking remarkable risks to get something so many of us take for granted – freedom.
I also appreciated the tone of Ms. Southgate’s presentation of her walk. She is not afraid to portray herself as grumpy, cranky or even in pain. Her humor and her resolve make the book so very real. She was, it seemed to me, just doing something she thought was right and essential. She seemed so driven by her sense of purpose. I have admired her since I first heard of the walk, and now I have even more reasons to do so.
I wholeheartedly support the preservation of all of the nooks and crannies and corners and houses and barns involved in the Underground Railroad. The stories must be told. Still, I wonder if we might be able to be more creative about what to do with them. People tended, in this book, to want all of them to become museums and that makes me concerned about their longevity.
Read the book, study the history, follow Southgate’s path and spread the word.
I am going to create a new genre in honor of this book. I am going to call it a Gateway Book, one that makes you want to read more, do more, learn more, and see more. This book does all of that.
I’d love to teach this one along with Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.
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