About the book:
Peggy Serrano couldn’t wait for her best friend to come home from the war. But the Jimmy Barnett who returns is much different from the Jimmy who left, changed so drastically by his experience as a medic in Europe that he can barely function. When he attempts the unthinkable, his parents check him into the VA hospital. Peggy determines to help the Barnetts unravel what might have happened to send their son over the edge. She starts by contacting Jimmy’s war buddies, trying to identify the mysterious woman in the photo they find in Jimmy’s belongings.
Seven years earlier, sensing the rising tide against their people, Gisela Wolff and her family flee Germany aboard the passenger ship St. Louis, bound for Havana, Cuba. Gisela meets Sam Shapiro on board and the two fall quickly in love. But the ship is denied safe harbor and sent back to Europe. Thus begins Gisela’s perilous journey of exile and survival, made possible only by the kindness and courage of a series of strangers she meets along the way, including one man who will change the course of her life.
Gisela, tell us a little about your life before the events of the story begin.
Gisela: I lived in Berlin with Mutti and Vati (my parents) and my younger sister, Ruthie. We’re Jewish, and we had a happy life in our Jewish neighborhood with our large extended family. Then Hitler came to power and Vati was forbidden to practice law. Ruthie and I were no longer allowed to attend our school. As the persecution grew worse and worse, we knew we had to get out of Germany. Vati began the difficult task of applying for visas and landing permits, searching for a country that would allow us in as refugees.
Your story begins in November 1938 on Kristallnacht. Tell us how that night changed your life.
Gisela: Kristallnacht was a night of widespread Nazi persecution, violence, and terror. Synagogues were set on fire; Jewish businesses and even hospitals were ransacked and demolished. When Vati rushed over to our synagogue to save the Torah scrolls, the Nazis arrested him and sent him to Buchenwald prison camp. Mutti was so overwhelmed with fear and grief that it was up to me to finish Vati’s work and try to get us all out of Germany.
Did you manage to escape?
Gisela: Yes! Miraculously, we were able to get landing permits for Havana, Cuba, where my uncle was waiting for us. We booked passage on a ship called the SS St. Louis and set sail from Hamburg, Germany.
It must have been a huge relief for you. Were you able to relax and enjoy the voyage?
Gisela: Not at first. Nearly all of the passengers were Jewish, like us, but the ship flew the Nazi flag and most of the sailors were Nazis. The portrait of Hitler that hung in the dining hall reminded us that we weren’t free yet. But I met Sam Shapiro on board and we soon became inseparable.
I don’t want to spoil the story for readers, but the voyage of the St. Louis was only the beginning of your long, wartime journey, wasn’t it?
Gisela: That’s true. I’m glad I didn’t know at the time how very far I would end up traveling and what my family and I were about endure as we tried to survive.
Thank you, Gisela. It will be interesting to read about those journeys. Peggy, it’s your turn now. Tell us a little about your life before the events of the story.
Peggy: My mother died when I was eleven years old, so I was raised by my father in our apartment above his auto repair shop. I was different from all of the other kids at school, and they bullied me mercilessly. My only friends were my dog, Buster, and Jimmy Barnett, who lived across the street from me. Jimmy is four years older than I am and he watched out for me like a big brother.
Your story begins after World War II ends and Jimmy Barnett and the other soldiers have just returned home. Tell us about that.
Peggy: The Jimmy who came home isn’t the same man who went away to war. He is sad all the time and barely speaks to anyone, even to me and his parents. Then the unthinkable happened, and he tried to kill himself. He’s in a veterans’ hospital now, and the doctors say he’s suffering from battle fatigue. Their treatments aren’t helping, so I came up with the idea of writing letters to all of his buddies from the war so we can try to figure out what happened that made him want to die. I’m desperate to find a way to help my best friend.
Are there any other changes for you now that the war is over?
Peggy: Oh, there are plenty! I worked in a factory during the war, building aircraft cannons, but that job came to an end when the war did. Then my father’s girlfriend, Donna, decided to take over the office work that I’ve always done for my father’s garage. She says I need to find another job and another place for my dog and me to live. And all of this while I’m trying to help Jimmy!
It sounds like a difficult time for you.
Peggy: It is. The only bright spot for me is working with Jimmy’s father in his veterinary clinic. I love animals and I’ve worked for Mr. Barnett part-time after school since I was eleven years old. But now I’ll need to find a full-time job and someplace else to live.
Thank you, Peggy. I’m sure readers will want to read the rest of your story to see how things turn out for you and Jimmy.
Lynn Austin has sold more than one and a half million copies of her books worldwide. A former teacher who now writes and speaks full-time, she has won eight Christy Awards for her historical fiction and was one of the first inductees into the Christy Award Hall of Fame. One of her novels, Hidden Places, was made into a Hallmark Channel Original Movie. Lynn and her husband have three grown children and make their home in western Michigan. Visit her online at lynnaustin.org.