37 Days at Sea
15 Jun. 2021
Paperback / softback
In May 1939, nearly one thousand German-Jewish passengers boarded the M.S. St. Louis luxury liner bound for Cuba. They hoped to escape the dangers of Nazi Germany and find safety in Cuba. In this novel in verse, twelve-year-old Ruthie Arons is one of the refugees, traveling with her parents. Ruthie misses her grandmother, who had to stay behind in Breslau, and worries when her father keeps asking for his stomach pills. But when the ship is not allowed to dock in Havana as planned—and when she and her friend Wolfie discover a Nazi on board—Ruthie must take action. In the face of hopelessness, she and her fellow passengers refuse to give up on the chance for a new life.
InformationBook Type: Junior Chapter
Age Group: 8 to 13 years
Traffic Lights: Green/Amber
Class Novel: Yes
Good Reads Rating: 4.5/5
Literary Rating: 4.5/5
Based on the true story of the M. S. St Louis’s journey from Nazi Germany in search of refuge for its Jewish passengers, this verse novel is told from the perspective of 12-year-old Ruthie Arons.
When the St Louis departs Germany, Ruthie is missing home and uncertain of her future, separated from her extended family and missing her beloved dog. She makes friends with Wolfie, a 12-year-old boy, and they cause mischief all around the ship. But there’s darkness all around them: survivors of concentration camps—marked by their shaved heads—and children travelling without families have been forever marked by the Nazi regime. And a permanent reminder of that regime is with them in the Nazi sympathisers aboard, like Mr Steinfelder, who is later removed from the ship as he’s a Nazi spy.
Meanwhile, the St Louise struggles to find a country who will give them asylum. At first destined for Cuba, they’re told on arrival that they aren’t allowed to disembark—their landing permits have been invalidated.
Ruthie and Wolfie send letters to the Roosevelts asking for asylum but receive no answer. The St Louis is turned away from U.S. waters. As matters grow increasingly desperate, the captain even considers wrecking the ship. Some of the adults are getting sick. The mood aboard is grim, and though Ruthie and Wolfie attempt to cheer people up, they’re rapidly losing hope.
At last, the passengers are taken on by Britain, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Ruthie is lucky to be headed for England, though she has to say goodbye to Wolfie, who disembarks in France. They plan to meet again someday in America.
This is a delightful book with a great historical perspective. Though not flinching from the darkness in Ruthie’s situation—there are some references to Kristallnacht, and she has a child’s understanding of the threat of concentration camps if they’re forced to return to Germany—the book is also full of childish fun and games. Frequent references to contemporary novels such as Emil und die Detective (1929) and Max und Moritz (1865) offers insight into historical Children’s literature for curious readers. The use of verse adds poignance, such as the line “I think/about the last time/the whole family/came together/when we held hands/and danced at Auntie Margit’s wedding./When my feet, even in their best shoes,/dangled from the chair, not reaching the floor” (p. 69).
The simple language makes it an accessible entry to verse, but clever use of repetition and negative space will make a good introduction to these techniques. A timeline and a short list of films for further viewing are provided at the back to add historical detail.
history, Judaism, anti-semitism, refugees, asylum seekers, travel, verse, poetry, pranks, family, home, WWII
1. Adults smoke cigars (p. 81, 106). 2. Wolfie has a rabbit's foot given to him by his father for luck before they were separated (p. 19). He gives it to Ruthie when they part (p. 143). Ruthie wonders if she would see the ghosts of sailors if she shone the torch into the sea (p. 63). 3. Cuban police are armed (p. 67). 4. Ruthie recalls that she beat up the school superintendent's son for calling her Dirty Jew Girl (p. 25). Mild references to anti-semitism and the Holocaust appear throughout.