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The Other Half of Life

3.82  ·  Rating details ·  168 Ratings  ·  39 Reviews
A heartbreaking novel based on the true story of a World War II voyage.

In May of 1939, the SS St. Francis sets sail from Germany, carrying German Jews and other refugees away from Hitler’s regime. The passengers believe they are bound for freedom in Cuba and eventually the United States, but not all of them are celebrating. Fifteen-year-old Thomas is anxious about his pare
ebook, 256 pages
Published May 12th 2009 by Knopf Books for Young Readers (first published January 1st 2009)
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Community Reviews

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Alex Baugh
Jul 12, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: world-war-2
In 1939, 930 German Jews set sail across the Atlantic Ocean on the MS St. Louis in the hope of escaping Nazi persecution in Germany and of finding political asylum in Cuba. The trip was costly to begin with, and then Cuba demanded $500 additional dollars that the refugees couldn't afford to pay. The ship proceeded to the United States and Canada, but both countries refused to grant asylum to the Jewish refugees. The captain of the St. Louis had taken it upon himself the make sure the passengers ...more
Jan 31, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This middle-grade historical fiction is based on the real-life voyage of the M.S. St. Louis, a luxury liner that took Jews away from Nazi Germany only to be turned away from Cuba, the USA and Canada. (All 947 passengers were returned to various countries in Europe, and many died in concentration camps.) Whitney tells the story through the eyes of 15-year-old Thomas, a prickly youth who carries guilt over his father going to Dachau and leaving his mother behind. I found Thomas hard to identify wi ...more
Mary Clare
Solid historical fiction based on the sad story of the MS St Louis, an ocean liner loaded with Jewish refugees that departed Germany in 1939 for Cuba. Whitney focuses her novel on Thomas, a teen travelling alone to meet a half-brother who had earlier emigrated to Cuba. The relationships among the passengers and between passengers and crew are well-drawn, including a budding romance between Thomas and a young woman named Priska. I think this would be enjoyed by those young readers who can't get e ...more
Robert Ellington
Amazing story.
Jun 20, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: historical fiction lovers 12 and up
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Curtis Dahlen
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jennifer Wardrip
Reviewed by Allison Fraclose for

It's 1939, and things have steadily grown worse for the Jews of Germany.

Fifteen-year-old Thomas Werkmann has witnessed firsthand just how cruel the Nazis can be, and his mother has scraped together the money to send him to Cuba on the tourist boat, the MS Francis, along with over 900 other Jews hoping to escape persecution. Upon their leaving in Hamburg, Thomas is unwillingly befriended by the two daughters of a German literature professor.

Jun 16, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I would have preferred to give this a 3.5 rating.

The story was a bit slow at times, in the descriptions of chess games and such. The history part was interesting to me as I had not heard of this ship and incident before.

From School Library Journal
Grade 6-8–Based on the story of the MS St. Louis in 1939, the journey of the fictional Nazi luxury liner MS St. Francis from Germany to Cuba and the United States creates the dramatic underpinning for this story. Focusing on 15-year-old Thomas Werkmann
An engrossing story based on one of the most shameful moments in U.S. history – the refusal to admit the 947 Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazi persecution on board the MS St. Louis in 1939. Here the ship is called the MS St. Francis, and we embark along with 15-year-old Thomas, traveling alone at the urging of his gentile mother after his Jewish father has been imprisoned by the Nazis. As the ship sets sail from Germany for Cuba, Thomas is befriended by Marianne and Priska, the daughters of the ...more
In 1939, Hitler and the Nazi Party have taken over Germany and Jews are rapidly being degrading and persecuted like never before. 15-year-old Thomas's father is Jewish and his mother, a gentile, has decided to send Thomas away to Cuba where he'll join his older half-brother in safety. Thomas is determined to be tough and cynical but two girls enter his life and change him for good. At first Thomas feels the beautiful Priska is naive and her little sister Marianne silly, but the more he gets to k ...more
May 31, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: summer-2010
Wow. That’s what I was thinking as I finished reading this book.

This book was incredible. It tells the story of a young boy named Thomas who boarded the St. Francis ship by himself, with his mother still in Germany, to hopefully find freedom in Cuba since he was a Jew during the time Nazis were out to kill them. Thomas was depressed while entering this ship. He was leaving behind his mother…he was leaving behind his father… and there was no guarantee that there would be a better life after the s
Karen Ball
Jun 05, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In 1939, Germany was controlled by the Nazis. On May 13, the passenger cruise ship MS St. Louis left Hamburg, Germany with over 900 passengers, most of whom were Jewish people escaping Nazi persecution. Their destination was the island of Cuba. This historical fiction novel is based upon the events of that voyage. Thomas is just 15, and traveling alone on the MS St. Francis to go live with his stepbrother in Cuba. His Jewish father was sent to a concentration camp, and his non-Jewish mother coul ...more
Sian Rips
This book takes place in the 1900s as Hitler is taking over Germany. Many jews board ships to Cuba in order to escape. This is a story of the kids, sailing on St. Frances, as they explore, play, and face hardships while on the boat as well.

One thing I liked about this book was the perspective. This book really captivates the carefree, yet worried feeling of the kids who were going through such a terrible time. Although, the kids aboard the St. Francis did not know much in the way of government
Jul 25, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: teen
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Aug 01, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm having a hard time trying to think how to write a review of this book. It's okay, it's just not great. The history is important and the author does a good job of trying to portray what happened on the MS St. Louis but for me, it felt a bit flat somehow. There were deep emotional things happening often in the book but the author jumped through them too quickly. You didn't have a chance to feel the moment because it was over before you knew what had happened and it isn't until the book is over ...more
Sandra Stiles
Mar 28, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: middle-grades
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, be ...more
Dec 01, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
While on my Nazi Germany phase, I picked up this book thinking it was just one of those books where the kid suffers and then gets to go to America at the end. Yay Whoops! This book completely turned the table and ended up being a really great book. It starts with a 15 year old boy named Thomas who is a Jew. Since this is Nazi Germany, his mother decides to send him to Cuba where his half-brother is. On the way he meets a 14 year old girl named Priska who, unlike Thomas, has lots of money and and ...more
Mrs. Hassig
Jan 23, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm giving this a 4 star because it's so danged sad. I think it's made worse because I know what happened to the MS St. Louis in real life and the author has just renamed this ships it the St. Francis. But I love her use of real characters that show how difficult it had to have been to leave everything you know and have to pay the Nazis to do it. And when it's all said and done Cuba isn't the only country that won't take the Jews on the ship. A must read if you want to know more about the Holoca ...more
Feb 04, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Id never even heard of the ship before. i liked that the book showed another side of WWII that id never seen before, one where the US wasn't always ready to help.
i play chess but ive never been good at it, and this book showed me ill probably never be since i dont think ahead...oh well. :) besides a crushed dream...
i really liked the ending, not really caring (*spoiler*) that it wasnt happy. wonderful book!!
Apr 28, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book was not only good because of the historical fiction , but because the way the author used chess to symbolize the Thomas journey. Although, I am not a fan of chess, this book caught my attention. I'd never seen chess in the eyes of a fanatic and i can honestly say that it convinced me. The author is brillant and i am awaiting for her work. My only critisism is that it was a bit easy for me.
Totally recommend this book to EVERYONE, but mostly to geeks like myself.
May 29, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The Other Half of Life tells the story of the MS St.Louis, a German ocean liner, which transported 937 Jewish refugees into different countries in Europe when Cuba refused the ship. The novel takes place from the protagonist Jonas' point of view. Jonas, a Jew, was separated from his mother. For Jonas getting on that ship is the start of a new life, little does he know about what lays ahead on his journey. The Other Half of Life is a tragic, beautiful, and enduring tale.
Feb 08, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2010
The story of 15-year-old Thomas' journey on a luxury ship carrying Jews from early WWII Europe to freedom in Cuba. A fictitious account of the real-life journey of the MS St. Louis. More information about this little-known voyage can be found at the back of the book and at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website, including teaching resources. A good addition to historical fiction collections.
Feb 22, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I really loved this story and stayed up late to finish it. Was totally with fifteen-year-old Thomas througout his journey on the ship, M.S. St. Francis just prior to World War II- Priska and her family also--all trying to get out of Nazi Germany and away from persecution. Emotionally gripping and really well told. Highly recommend this.
This was a good story, and it was very engrossing. I think Holocaust stories are very important, and this one centered around specific events I was not aware of. However, not a whole lot set it apart for me. And I do not like when I don't understand why a book has a certain title, and that was the case for me here.
Jun 19, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ya-and-childrens
This one was okay. There was nothing to make it stand out from other holocaust literature. It was lacking some of the soul searching and horror of other novels in the genre. Perhaps it's a good way to tell younger children about the holocaust without a lot of bloodshed, though it's no Number the Stars.
Sep 02, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ya
This is a great book if you enjoy historical fiction and want to read a clean, thought provoking story that is serious but not graphic or too heartwrenching. It is a middle-grade book and many of the details are not based on real people or events but the historical framework is accurate. Although I am not a chess player I enjoyed the imagery and symbolism of chess used throughout the book.
Mary S.
Dec 09, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: those who love historical fiction
Having to leave one country and enter a new unseen country would be a frightening situation. Having to leave home, family, community because of your race is staggering to consider. Fearing every day that you may not make it to safety is thought-provoking because we live where we feel safe. As we ponder these issues while reading, the characters in this book grow too with the same questions.
Sylvia Patience
Mar 10, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed this story based on the journey of the St. Louis. This was an important event in world history and one that interests me very much, and yet is not well known today. Much to my surprise, I stumbled upon The Other Half of Life while doing research for a novel I'm writing on the same topic. I hope there'll be room for both, as I'm already well into it.
Lindsey Black
Sep 20, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Jan 24, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, ya
Historical fiction - shocked that I liked this one based on genre. Story of Jews aboard a ship meant to take them out of Germany right at the beginning of WWII. Cuba, America, & Canada refused entrance to the passengers, turning the ship around.
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Kim moved back to her hometown of Newton, Mass. where she lives with her husband, two young sons, and greyhound. She is a graduate of Tufts University, and has an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College. She is a member of the PEN New England Children’s Book Caucus and is the coordinator of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award. A lifelong horse lover and rider, she is a natio ...more
More about Kim Ablon Whitney...