“'There's cold chicken inside it,' replied the Rat briefly; 'coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrench

'O stop, stop,' cried the Mole in ecstacies: 'This is too much!'”
-- from
The Wind in the Willows

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Other Half of Life • Historical fiction

The Other Half of Life
Recently published  • Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers  •  Historical fiction  • Ages 12 and up
A fascinating, heartbreaking story of World War II Jewish refugees fleeing to safety -- inspired by a true story.
The Other Half of Life is a wonderful introduction for young readers to contemporary history and its traumatic and moral challenges.” --Elie Wiesel
Story: Fifteen-year-old Thomas is on board the MS St. Francis, a luxury liner whose crew is made up of Nazis -- yet whose passengers are Jewish. While he feels fortunate to be one of the few Jews to escape Hitler's Nazi regime and flee to safety in Cuba, he is also skeptical. Most passengers are celebrating their escape from a life of imprisonment, persecution, and death; but not all. When Thomas begins noticing some of the crew's shady antics, his suspicions are confirmed that the congenial atmosphere and the promise of a life of freedom are not what they seem. Upon the ship's arrival in Cuba, Thomas and the other passengers endure the implementation of changes in immigration policy, forcing them to return to the dreaded place from which they fled. The Other Half of Life tells a lesser-known World War II story, and gives readers another lens through which they can view the plight of these Jewish refugees.
Story behind the story: Kim Ablon Whitney's fascination with the true story of the MS St. Louis began immediately after she read an article about the ship's doomed voyage; she was captivated by the heartbreaking story and what life on board must have been like. "From the first time I read The Diary of Anne Frank and Night, I have always been interested in events surrounding World War II and the Holocaust. When I heard of the tragic story of this journey, I knew I wanted to try to bring it to life for future generations."

In addition to reading many books and newspaper articles on the voyage of the St. Louis, the author also viewed the handful of videos with interviews with survivors -- and even interviewed one of the survivors herself. The Other Half of Life encourages readers to consider the origins of persecution, other countries’ reactions and responsibilities to persecution, and the humanitarian treatment of refugees. See the teacher's guide and video of a presentation about the book for additional information and ways to get the discussion going.

“[Kim Ablon] Whitney has written a captivating novel with superb detail.” --Herbert Karliner, MS St. Louis survivor

“[A] gripping novel… the dialogue, especially the flirting, is fast and tender, and Whitney builds the story’s excitement.” --Booklist Magazine

“The pacing and onboard mysteries will keep readers involved.” --Kirkus Reviews

FYI: all the review copies for this title have been sent and reviews are in the works; please check back and click on the "comments" link below to read what your colleagues have to say.


okbolover said...

this book certainly looks interesting. I emailed for a reviewer's copy and hopefully I can get one. If not, no worries I'll look for it on amazon or wait until it's at the library (if ever) :) I love anything about WWII whether it's fiction or non fiction.

CPA Mom said...

An absolute MUST READ for all students of History. See my complete review of this fascinating book.


Cori said...

Well written look at history. The author took the time to research the events the story was based on and it shows.

Julia Pitau said...

It is obvious that much time and effort went into the research and development of The Other Half of Life by Kim Whitney, which is why I believe I was pulled into this historical fiction book almost immediately. The characters were well developed and the story told with enough detail to keep me interested throughout 19 of the 21 chapters. I was disappointed with the last two chapters because they jumped forward too many years and did not successfully fill in what transpired in between. I was left feeling the author was done with the story and needed a quick way to end it. Too many questions were left unanswered.

Picnic Rating: 3

Denair Charter Academy
Denair, CA

Mrs. Stearns said...

The Other Half of Life is based on the true account of a passenger ship that left Germany in 1939 with 937 passengers. The ship was denied entry into Cuba and the USA and had to return to Germany. This young adult novel exposes a little known event from history. The author's attention to detail reflects her extensive research. This book will be a worthy addition to any study of the Holocaust. I would rate this book a 3, as it will not appeal to all young adults. The book does include lots of details, and does give a realistic picture of the events of the time.

Christina said...

The Other Half of Life, by Kim Ablon Whitney, reminds me of the movie Titanic. Young love blossoms on a doomed ocean voyage. The story is wrapped up at the end by one of the elderly characters filling us in on the ensuing years. And even if you know the history of the event, there is much to be learned from seeing it through the eyes of fictional participants.

I for one do not remember learning about the MS St. Louis in history class. In fact, I don’t think I had heard about it at all until reading another Picnic Basket selection, Denied, Detained, Deported, by Ann Bausum. The Other Half of Life takes us aboard the MS St. Francis, a pseudonym for the St. Louis, through the eyes of Thomas Werkmann, a teenager attempting to escape Nazi Germany with nearly 1000 other Jewish passengers. As the ship steams across the Atlantic, Thomas is suspicious of the crew and doubtful of the happy ending most of the passengers think is waiting for them in Cuba. Carefree Priska both fascinates and exasperates Thomas with her apparently boundless optimism.

Whitney brings this episode of World War II the attention it deserves as she brings this story to life. I will recommend this book to my eighth grade readers without reservation.

Picnic Basket Rating: 5.

Sandra Stiles said...

This book is a must on every school shelf. I had never heard of the MS St. Louis before reading this book. I could not imagine being in Thomas’ shoes and being the only one from my family on a ship that was to take me to safety. Thomas’ father was taken to a concentration camp because he was a Jew and his mother, being a Christian had only enough money to buy the safe passage for her son. On board he meets Priska and becomes her friend. She reminded me of Anne Frank with her positive outlook, believing that there was good in everyone and everything. Thomas seemed to have a more realistic outlook. He didn’t exactly trust all of those around him as Priska did.
This for me was an emotional ending. I loved the timeline that was placed at the end of the book. I also loved all of the sources that were listed at the end. It will prove valuable.
This is definately a 5

Lemon the Duck said...

This book had a wonderful fictional story based on true events. The story gives the reader a glimpse of what the Jewish people went through in WWII through a different path.
The strong characters and attention to detail made this story all the more engaging.
I would've liked to have read more about Thomas's life after the war and was disappointed because I was unable to connect with his family later on.
I think this is a book for YA wanting to learn more about history or just wanting to read an amazing story.
I rate this book a 4 out of 5.
Laura Backman
Reading Specialist
Author of "Lemon the Duck"

Tina's Blog said...

I read The Other Half of Life: A Novel Based on the True Story of the MS St. Louis by Kim Ablon Whitney that I received from the Picnic Basket yesterday. This is a great historical fiction read about World War II. Thomas Werkman, the son of a Jewish father (his mother was not Jewish) is sent by his mother to what she believes is safety in Cuba where he will meet his half brother, Walter. His time on the boat seems so different from his life in Germany he has left behind where food is rationed and times are tough. The passengers on the boat are treated well, as the captain insists they should be. Thomas is befriended by a young woman, Priska, who is a year younger than he. Together the two manage to unlock some secrets on the boat and learn together that their entrance to Cuba may be blocked. They continue to find their attraction to each other growing, yet must ultimately say goodbye. This book about Jews being sent to Cuba is the second I have read on this topic in the last few months. The first Tropical Secrets by Margarita Engle is written in verse, and while I enjoyed the fresh viewpoint, I will admit to enjoying Whitney's book a great deal more. Books that provide a new look at World War II are hard for me to put dow, and I appreciated The Other Half of Life for providing that. Whitney also allows us to see how Thomas and Priska's lives turn out ten years after they part from each other, and then seventy years later. This book will be a great addition to Holocaust units and an interesting read for anyone.
Rating 5/5

Kim M., middle school literature teacher said...

This book rates as a 3 for me. Although it is based on a true story I found the plot heavy on the game of chess with a bit of heart breaking romance in the end. The story certainly portrays the horrible atrocities of the Hitler era.
Kim M, middle school literature teacher

Melanie T., Community College Librarian said...

The Other Half of Life tells the story of the St. Francis, “the ship the whole world had turned its back on.” It is a new, interesting take on the oft-told story of the Holocaust and World War II. Ablon Whitney skillfully creates a human touch and insight into the personal lives of the passengers of the ship, especially Thomas and Priska. For me, it was a quick read and brought to light many things I had not really considered before, especially how families of mixed race dealt with the events of Holocaust and also the fact that many Jews were not necessarily religious Jews but rather Jewish culturally or ethnically.

I give this book a four rating since a few minor flaws interrupted an otherwise good story for me. First, the last chapter felt a little out of place. I was particularly struck by the fact that seventy years after the voyage, Thomas would have been 85 years old, but yet, it mentions Thomas’ daughter, Faith, who had left “her own young daughter” at home. The numbers just don’t add up. It was also a little heavy on chess strategy which I think many will skim over. I also didn’t think the two brief references to Thomas getting sexually aroused were necessary.

Includes sources for further study and author’s notes. The author uses a few German phrases/words, so a short glossary of translated words might have been helpful.

Danielle said...

There is a wide range of historical fiction books that take place during WWII and many of them focus on events surrounding the Holocaust. However, this book provides the unique perspective of the ill-fated voyage of the St. Louis--an event that many have never even heard of. I know that I had certainly never learned about it in history class.

I had first heard of the ship in the autobiographical book I Have Lived a Thousand Years by Livia Bitton-Jackson, so I was interested in learning more about this event. The book provided details into the time period and while I did not particularly enjoy the parts about chess, overall it was a good story.

As others have mentioned, I would have liked there to have been more information provided about Thomas's life after the St. Louis and the events that led to the 10 years later chapter from the previous one.

The resource list provided at the end was great and this book would be a good supplement for those learning about the Holocaust.

I give it a 3 out of 5.

Danielle, elementary teacher & part-time librarian

Anonymous said...

This book is a great book for young adults. It was very interesting and captivating, since the book is based on the actual account of the MS St. Louis, in which I and probably many other readers have never even heard about before. It gives the reader a better understanding of some of the things the jews went through during WWII.

I give this book a 4 out of 5.

David P.

Ms.Y said...

I was instantly pulled into the lifelike details in this novel. It is very clear that this author not only did a ton of research, but also has a love of this time period. I thought she did a tremendous job of putting a human face on this moment in history. That said - I did think there were places that moved slowly and I'm not sure all of my kids would be fans. I know all my WWII buffs will enjoy it though and I'm going to happily recommend it to them this week.
Rating: 3 1/2
Jenna Yuenger
Middle School Language Arts Teacher

Dawn said...

I loved this book for the empathy I instantly felt with Thomas. I believe the author captured so well what would be going through a 15-year-old boys mind when leaving his mother, perhaps never to see her again, and the difficulty of deciding to react as man or a boy in times like that. I felt that the main characters were very well developed in the story. The facts this novel were based on are fascinating. I loved the Manfred connection, the kind ship's captain and the Holz betrayal! Terrific research and detailing about everything from the ships decor to Thomas' meager wardrobe!

I did have trouble keeping up with some of the minor characters who were introduced in the beginning while boarding the boat, then not talked of much till later in the novel. I had forgotten the names of the newlyweds and the pregnant woman by the time the ball began and they were talked about again. I also was bogged down in the chess talk. I don't play chess and certainly have no idea who famous chess players were. I think this might deter some readers. And I agree that the ending was a bit abrupt.

In spite of these minor criticisms, this was a really great book and YAs studying the Holocaust will find it enjoyable and enlightening. But they might need to skip over the chess tournament :). I'd give this book a 3.

Heather Hill said...

The Other Half of Life is a powerful reminder of the atrocities and injustices committed by the Nazis to the european Jews during the Holocaust. The author did a good job of capturing the feelings of a 15 year old boy making the journey across the ocean alone and having to leave his mother behind.

Though some reviewers feel that the "chess talk" was too heavy and slowed the book down, I felt as though chess was an integral part of Thomas' character and served to illustrate his complexity.

As with most Holocaust novels, the ending is not all that happy. At the end, you are left feeling as survivors of the Holocaust must...heartbroken for all that was lost, but determined to live despite the memories.

I found the book hard to put down and think kids that like historical fiction will feel the same way.

The book is a 5 out of 5.

Heather Hill, Reading Specialist
Enterprise Elementary
Woodbridge, VA

Anonymous said...

I did not know about the true story but this book is a very good opening into the past of trouble.
The characters are real life people with all the emotions that teenages would have. I would receommend this book for the 7 graders. I believe that this book is more of a boy's book. The chess tourment would be of great interest to my chess club team.

StacyB. said...

"The Other Half of Life" is an eye-opening book that will get your middle school students talking. It brought relevent information to light and captured my attention to the very end. The chess playing plot was also interesting and could lead to some fun hands-on activities. I rate this book a 5/5.

Mrs. Vincent said...

Wow! I just finished this book and I strongly recommend it for any classroom collection of WWII books. I am a fan of historical fiction and have read a lot of WWII historical fiction. This book is great because it does talk about a more unknown part of WWII but it does a great job of telling about the characters and what they have been through. I agree that in the end she does jump forward and leave out what happens to the passengers after they get off the boat, but I think if you read or study WWII then you can get all of that from ohter sources. This book focuses on the voyage on the MS St. Louis and their characters. I thought the characters were great and I loved the relationship between Thomas and Priska.

I'm not sure if I would introduce this to readers before or after they have read or studied about the war. I think it would be a good idea to make sure students understand the war and what happened before reading this. There is tension on the boat, but the kids do keep their minds off of the intensity of everything so I feel like this book needs to be read after you realize how horrific WWII was before reading this book.

Picnic Rating: 5 out of 5

Jen Vincent, Teacher of Hard of Hearing Students, Illinois


Bloggin Betty said...

I loved this story about Jews who tried to escape Germany prior to WWII...The story is told from the perspective of 15 year old Thomas, who is traveling alone and falls in love with a girl on the ship. It is a really cute story, especially for grades 4-9. But even as an adult I enjoyed it. I give it a 5 out of 5!

Lindsey B.
Adjunct faculty, Utah

Molly said...

I was shocked that I enjoyed this book as much as I did. I have been putting off reading it for months solely based on the fact that it is Historical Fiction. The story tells of two young people meeting on a ship heading for Cuba from Nazi Germany and follows their story intertwined with that of the ship that couldn’t land. I could have done without the chess scenes; I will admit getting lost during those major sections, although I do see the bigger picture of the game of chess being symbolic of the “game” being played with the lives of the people on the ship. I also would have liked to see a glossary of some sort for the German terms used throughout the book. I will certainly recommend this to anyone teaching a unit on the Holocaust era, whether in Social Studies or in English classes. I have already added this to my library’s collection and have been telling its story to anyone who will listen.
I would give this a 4.5/5.

Molly Matchak
Hickory High School Media Sopecialist