The Other Half of Life
Everyone tells fifteen-year-old Thomas Werkmann that he’s finally escaping Nazi Germany on the MS St. Francis, bound for Cuba, but the gifted chess player can see too many moves in advance to believe them. His father is in a concentration camp and he had to leave his mother in Germany. He does not trust his luck. His worries are initially not shared by his new best friend, the adventurous fourteen-year-old Priska Affeldt. After a chance overheard conversation, the two friends embark on a dangerous investigation, shadowing an unsavory Nazi crew member, a friendly young purser also attracted to Priska, and a captain who acts suspiciously tolerant. As they dig deeper, they discover that their shipmates hide dangerous secrets. What will happen to the passengers when they reach Cuba: freedom, a return to an increasingly dangerous Europe or something else entirely?
After a slow start, the novel picks up when Thomas and Priska start searching for answers. The twists and turns of the investigation are echoed in Thomas’s beautifully described chess games. Life on board the ship is aptly described, and the passengers’ hope and doubt is palpable. Knowing that the voyage itself and the historical outcome actually happened lends the narrative a sense of urgency and inevitability as the novel heads into its endgame.