The Oth­er Half of Life

Kim Ablon Whitney
  • Review
By – November 10, 2011
Based on the true sto­ry of the MS St. Louis, Kim Ablon Whitney’s The Oth­er Half of Life presents a heart­break­ing tale of peo­ple try­ing to escape Ger­many before World War II, but unable to find a coun­try to take them in. The fic­tion­al SS St. Fran­cis, bound for Cuba, car­ries a Nazi crew, Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish pas­sen­gers flee­ing Ger­many, and a Nazi offi­cer keep­ing a watch­ful eye on every­one. Thomas, the pro­tag­o­nist, is alone on the ship — his Jew­ish father is in Dachau, and his Chris­t­ian moth­er could only afford pas­sage for one. He befriends Priska, who is trav­el­ing with her fam­i­ly, and read­ers fol­low as first Cuba and then the Unit­ed States refuse to allow them to enter. The St. Fran­cis is even­tu­al­ly forced to return to Europe, and the pas­sen­gers must go to what­ev­er coun­tries can be per­suad­ed to accept them. Though Priska’s father tries to con­vince the author­i­ties to let Thomas dis­em­bark in Antwerp with them, he is unsuc­cess­ful, and Thomas and Priska part with a promise to meet in five years in Mia­mi. A pair of epi­logues describe Thomas’s meet­ing with Priska’s sis­ter Mar­i­anne ten years lat­er, and their trip with their chil­dren to the Holo­caust Muse­um in Wash­ing­ton, DC 60 years after that.

Thomas is a lik­able char­ac­ter, and read­ers will appre­ci­ate the inter­play in his con­ver­sa­tions with Priska; her opti­mism and faith make a good coun­ter­point to Thomas’ dark­er view of the world. Whit­ney skill­ful­ly por­trays the pas­sen­gers’ hor­ri­ble sit­u­a­tion, as well as the small kind­ness­es that help make their time on the ship bet­ter. How­ev­er, even fans of chess may find the detailed descrip­tions of his chess match­es and his com­par­isons of chess and his own sit­u­a­tion some­what over­done. Nonethe­less, Whit­ney presents a well-writ­ten sto­ry peo­pled with engag­ing char­ac­ters to intro­duce read­ers to this less­er-known episode. Read­ers eager to learn more will be grate­ful for the his­tor­i­cal notes, the chronol­o­gy of Nazi leg­is­la­tion affect­ing Jews, and sources of addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion on the SS St. Louis, the Holo­caust, ocean lin­ers, and chess. High­ly rec­om­mend­ed for 14 and up.
Mar­ci Lavine Bloch earned her MLS from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land, a BA from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia and an MA in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture from Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty. She has worked in syn­a­gogue and day school libraries and is cur­rent­ly fin­ish­ing her term on the Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Award Committee.

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