The Other Half of Life
Kim Ablon Whitney
Knopf books for young readers
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". . .a tale of innocence, confusion, fear, guilt and hope that lingers in the heart and the mind."
The Other Half of Life: A compelling and poignant YA novel of children on the verge of adulthood at the dawn of Nazi Germany.
Thomas’s mother can only afford for one of them to leave Germany on a liner going to Cuba at the beginning of World War II. Although she married a Jew, Thomas’s mother is blonde, blue-eyed and Christian. She’s not at risk. Thomas goes to Cuba to be with his half brother already waiting for entry to the United States.
On the MS St. Francis nine hundred Jews board to go to Cuba, leaving Germany and the armbands and hatred behind them. Thomas is “adopted” by the Affeldts, a Jewish family traveling in first class. He gets an education in faith, something he knows nothing about despite his heritage. His father and mother were interested in philosophy, politics, literature and science but never religion.
While at sea, Thomas and Priska, his “adopted cousin”, overhear that there are two other ships headed to Cuba and their ship may be turned back to Germany where they will certainly end up in the concentration camps. Nevertheless, Priska, ever the optimist continues to have faith they will land in Cuba and be eventually admitted to the United States. Thomas is less certain and determined to keep his eyes and ears open, putting himself and Priska in the path of a German spy.
So many books have been written about the Holocaust and the Jewish plight during World War II, but few have addressed the problem from a young person’s perspective with such realism and attention to detail. In The Other Half of Life Kim Ablon Whitney introduces Thomas, a fifteen year old boy who has no religious background and no idea of what it’s like to be Jewish. To Thomas being a Jew is simply a word, a label that split up his family and forced him to leave his mother.
Whitney writes about Thomas’s introduction to Judaism with unstudied simplicity. As Thomas listens to the rabbi chanting in “What he guessed must be Hebrew… [he] felt the ease he had felt back in Berlin when the apartment was filled with his parents’ friends, the hum of their voices. It came from being surrounded by people who shared the same beliefs.”
The Other Half of Life unfolds slowly, giving the characters time to develop and share their secrets quietly as if between intimate confidantes. Whitney uses this small, seemingly insignificant incident against the backdrop of so many atrocities to good effect. Its still small voice is both effective and personal. Young and older adults will find—as I did—Thomas and Priska’s story compelling, a tale of innocence, confusion, fear, guilt and hope that lingers in the heart and the mind.
Reviewer: J. M. Cornwell