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Three years ago, Stephie and her younger sister, Nellie, escaped the Nazis in Vienna and fled to an island in Sweden, where they were taken in by different families. Now sixteen-year-old Stephie is going to school on the mainland. Stephie enjoys her studies, and rooming with her school friend, May. But life is only getting more complicated as she gets older.
Stephie might lose the grant money that is funding her education. Her old friend Verra is growing up too fast. And back on the island, Nellie wants to be adopted by her foster family. Stephie, on the other hand, can’t stop thinking about her parents, who are in a Nazi camp in Austria. If only the war would end. . . .
Like the deep sea, Stephie’s life is filled with danger and darkness, but also with beauty and hope as she learns to stand up for her beliefs and be true to herself.
A CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book of the Year
*"A rich blend of emotional truths."--Kirkus Reviews, Starred
*"This novel about coming of age during a complicated, tragic time in history is both delicate and poignant."--Publisher's Weekly, Starred
"Thor . . . deftly balances the sisters’ everyday concerns with the greater psychological aspects of being refugees."--School Library Journal
"The novel’s strength lies in its rich cast of secondary characters whose stories bring wartime Sweden to life."--Booklist
"The present tense and a limited third-person narration that reflects Stephie’s every thought and emotion give the story unusual immediacy, nuance, and impact."--The Hornbook Magazine
“Deep Sea and the story of the Steiner sisters is a much-needed voice in the sea of World War II novels for youth.”—VOYA
Praise for A Faraway Island
Winner of the Mildred L. Batchelder Award
"[A] welcome addition to the canon of WWII stories."--The Hornbook Magazine, Starred
Praise for The Lily Pond
A Mildred L. Batchelder Honor Book
"This distinguished Holocaust story will resonate."--Booklist
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The tram rattles down the wide street. Stephie stares out the window without really seeing anything. The roads, houses, shops, and flower beds along the route to and from school have all become so familiar they're invisible to her. Somewhere at the back of her mind, other streets and houses loom. But they are mere shadows, the memory of a dream.
"A penny for your thoughts!"
Stephie's eyes shift from the window to her friend May, who is sitting next to her.
"None in particular," she says.
"It's lucky you don't have to ride alone," says May. "I think you'd forget to get off."
With a piercing squeal, the tram pulls in at Sandarna. Stephie and May stand up, along with most of the remaining passengers who live far from the center of town. Their tram route meanders through the whole city and passes through Mayhill, where May's family used to live. Although Sandarna isn't the last stop, it's the last outpost of the city, before the area becomes more rural. Once it has finished climbing the slope and made its turn, the nearly empty tram will cross the city limit and continue toward the sea, passing the fancy summerhouses in Langedrag and running all the way to the bathhouse at Saltholmen.
Stephie lives at the edge of the city. All the way out, as far as you can get. Just like when she lived on the island, where she still has her second home, with Aunt Marta and Uncle Evert. The first time Stephie saw their house on the barren west side of the island, at the opposite tip from the sheltered harbor and little village, she thought she must be at the end of the world.
But when you have to live thousands of miles from your home and your parents, you always feel far away. It doesn't really matter where you are.
The tram stops, and the girls get off and cross the street. Straight ahead is a big white elementary school attended by hundreds of children from the neighborhood's many large families. Most of May's little sisters and brothers are students there. She also has two siblings who haven't even started school yet, as well as an older sister, Britten, closest to May in age, who had to quit after primary school last spring and take a job as an errand girl at the bakery. Almost all the children in the area quit school after the compulsory six years. May is an exception; her high grades got her a scholarship, which allowed her to continue her education at the girls' grammar school in town.
"I'm worried sick about our math test!" says May. "I'll never pass. I just know it. And if I fail this one, too, Miss Bjork is going to have to flunk me. Then I'll never get into high school."
Stephie and May are in their third and final year of grammar school now. Next fall, they'll start high school if their grades are good enough to win them scholarships again. Everyone in the class is focused on grades, but Stephie and May are the only ones who won't be able to go on if they don't get scholarships.
"You'll get through," says Stephie. "I'll help."
In the city center, there are many stately apartment buildings with a dark labyrinth of courtyards at their rear, where a myriad of outbuildings and sheds are separated by tall wooden fences. But the homes are so tightly lined up along the streets that passersby can't see what lies behind them.
Here in Sandarna, there are no courtyards. The apartment buildings are dotted along a slope, now covered with last year's snow-burnt grass, which will soon turn green. The off-white buildings are set at angles that give every apartment, each with its own balcony, some sun. Narrow paths lead up to the doors. The carpet-beating racks sport cheerful rag rugs being aired, and the whole area swarms with children.
The girls stop at the grocery store, the Co-Op, where they buy dinner on credit. Almost all the customers have their purchases written up in the ledger. Aunt Marta wouldn't approve. One of her many rules in life is "Be in debt to no one."
Then the girls head to the school day care to pick up Erik and Ninni. Erik is a confident six-year-old who doesn't really want to be seen with his big sister and her friend. He runs right off to play with the big boys. But three-year-old Ninni gives both girls hugs and kisses, and wants to be carried up the stairs. May picks her up, but Ninni reaches out for Stephie, who takes her from May. Halfway up, Ninni wants to change back.
"Spoiled rotten," May mutters, lugging her little sister up the last two fights to the fourth floor.
Stephie laughs. "And who's to blame for spoiling her?" she asks.
"I know, I know!"
Gunnel, who's eight, comes running up the stairs after them, wanting to tell them about something that happened at school. She takes Stephie by the hand, chatting eagerly. Gunnel is constantly admiring Stephie's black hair, dark eyes, and slight accent. She even tries to imitate the way Stephie speaks Swedish. She always wants to be holding Stephie's hand or sitting on her lap. Stephie is happy to let her.
But occasionally, as Gunnel sits on her lap and twirls a lock of Stephie's long hair, Stephie's conscience bothers her. She starts thinking about Nellie, her own younger sister who still lives on the island with her foster parents, Auntie Alma and Uncle Sigurd. Since Stephie left to attend grammar school in Goteborg, she sees Nellie only one weekend a month and on school vacations. Nellie is ten now, going on eleven, a big girl who doesn't want to sit on anyone's lap.
Long ago, when they left Vienna before the war, Stephie promised their parents that she would take care of Nellie.
Stephie isn't sure she has lived up to that promise.
Stephie unlocks the door with the key she and May share. Britten has one of her own, but the younger children aren't allowed home until May and Stephie return from school, or unless their mother finishes her housekeeping job and gets home first.
There's a yellowish card on the doormat inside. Stephie picks it up, knowing without even looking what it is.
Early last autumn, she stopped receiving letters from her parents in Vienna. For several months, neither Stephie nor Nellie heard anything from them. Stephie's anxiety tightened uncomfortably in her stomach day after day, week after week, month after month.
In the end, a card arrived, identical to the one she's holding in her hand. It came from Theresienstadt, a camp in Czechoslovakia, not far from Prague. The Germans had gathered thousands of Jews there--men, women, and children from Vienna, Berlin, Hamburg, and Prague. Stephie and Nellie would be there now, too, if their parents hadn't sent them to Sweden while there was still time.
The cards from Theresienstadt are always identical. Blank cards, like postcards but without pictures. And with very little text. Stephie has counted the words. Excluding the date and signature, there are always exactly thirty. She thinks people in the camp probably aren't allowed to write more than thirty words. She imagines someone sitting and counting the words on thousands of those cards. No wonder it takes at least a month, sometimes even longer, for them to arrive.
On one of the first cards, Papa asked Stephie if she could try to send food. He didn't say what they needed, but Aunt Marta helped Stephie fill a box with canned goods, dried fruit, oatmeal, and dark bread that kept well. Now they prepare a package every time Stephie goes home to the island. Aunt Marta pays for half the food, and Stephie saves her pocket money to pay for the other half. She also has some savings from the job she had as a delivery girl for a florist in town during the holiday season. In the winter, Aunt Marta knitted socks, mittens, and scarves and put them in the boxes. And every now and then, May's mother, Aunt Tyra, gives her a can of evaporated milk or a box of raisins to add to the next box.
May, too, knows that the card is from Stephie's parents. Putting Ninni down, she takes the bag of groceries from Stephie.
"Go into the bedroom," she says. "I'll take care of the kids and dinner."
As May heads for the kitchen with Ninni in tow, Gunnel stands in the hall, staring at Stephie, who is hanging up her coat.
"Gunnel!" May calls from the kitchen. "Come on in here and leave Stephie in peace."
Reluctantly, Gunnel moves toward the kitchen. Stephie takes the card with her into the bedroom she and May share with Britten and Gunnel. May's parents and Ninni sleep in the living room, while Kurre and Olle, who are eleven, share the kitchen settle. Erik sleeps in the bathroom, where there ought to be a bathtub, but the war has made delivery impossible. The landlord has promised them a tub as soon as the war ends.
Stephie sits down on her bed, one of the bottom bunks, and reads:
Theresienstadt, 13 March 1943
Thank you for the box! Thanks and regards to Aunt Marta. Your concern means everything. Imagine! I'm singing "Queen of the Night" in The Magic Flute camp opera!
Thirty words. Thirty words are so little. She can picture Mamma writing a draft in pencil, crossing things out, and making changes to be able to say all she wants to in that space. Maybe she changed Dearest Stephie to Darling just to save one word. Maybe she shortened the part about Aunt Marta from Please thank Aunt Marta so much from us. But she had been unable to resist that little exclamation, Imagine! And what did she mean, really? Was it possible to stage an opera in the camp? Could that be true?
Her mother's dream role had always been the Queen of the Night, but she never had the chance to sing it while she worked at the opera. She said she was too young for the role in those days. But before the Germans invaded, the family went to see a performance of The Magic Flute.
Well, maybe Theresienstadt isn't such an awful place after all, Stephie thinks. If it's a place where you can put on a Mozart opera, it can't be all bad, can it?
Stephie reads the little card over and over again, as if she might be able to extract something more from those thirty words. A whisper, a few notes of music, the answers to her questions.
A hubbub in the kitchen brings her back to reality. Ninni's hurt herself, and May is blaming Gunnel for not having kept a good enough eye on her little sister while May was cooking.
Stephie gets up off the bed. She tries to be as helpful as she possibly can with everything that needs to be done at May's. It's the least she can do. The relief committee does send some money to May's parents as a contribution to Stephie's room, board, and pocket money, but it's still not easy for them to have her living with them. Even without Stephie, there would be nine people in the apartment. Although it's larger than the family's old one on Kaptensgatan, it's still crowded.
When summer arrives, Stephie will return to the island as she did last summer, and Aunt Marta will get the money from the relief committee for those months. Whatever is left after food expenses and pocket money for Stephie will be deposited in a savings account at the post office bank in Stephie's name.
"For the future," says Aunt Marta.
The future. Stephie used to imagine an endless series of days. A road through an open landscape, not straight and easy, yet a road you could see and follow. Stephie can't see that road ahead of her anymore. She moves forward as if in a fog, one cautious step at a time.
Someday the fog will have to lift. Someday the war will have to end.
Stephie goes into the kitchen. May has a pot of potatoes boiling on the stove, and she's frying herring. The scent of fish rises. Stephie sniffs. Since coming to Sweden, she has learned to like fish.
"Can I help you?" she asks.
"Is everything all right?" May counters.
"I think so."
"Well, would you set the table?"
Stephie takes out plates and glasses and knives and forks, putting them all on the kitchen table. It's a small kitchen; there's not enough room for all ten of them to eat at the same time. May and Stephie usually prepare dinner when they come home from school. When it's ready, they call in the younger children. Later, Aunt Tyra heats up what's left for Britten, May's father, and herself. Except on Sundays. On Sundays, they carry the kitchen table into the living room and they all eat together, some sitting at the main table, some around the low table in front of the couch.
The kitchen at Kaptensgatan was bigger, but otherwise everything is better here. It's a bright apartment, and in spite of not being so big, it feels light and airy. From the living room, you can look straight across the hall and out through the kitchen window. The wallpaper is nice and new, and there is linoleum on the floors. The kitchen has a gas stove and a china cupboard. There's hot running water in the kitchen and bathroom, as well as radiators under the windows, so the apartment stays warm. There's even a trash chute in the stairwell. When Aunt Tyra realized she no longer had to go outside to take out the garbage, tears came to her eyes.
"Just think," she said. "Regular people like us can live so well! Everything's so nice and new, and easy to take care of." She looked at her hands, red and chafed from all the housecleaning she does at home and for the wealthy families she works for. "Hot water in the apartment! Oh, how I would have loved that when all you kids were little. Think how much easier it would have been to keep you neat and clean! All but Erik, of course. He gets dirty the minute I turn my back!"
According to May, Sandarna is the start of a new era. An era in which workers will live in modern housing and exert influence in society. An era that will take root after the war.
After the war.
The last math test of the spring semester takes place in the school auditorium. Stephie's stomach tightens every time she enters this room to take a test. Rows of seats, a teacher on guard up front, and the acrid smell of test papers straight off the duplicating machine remind her of the German test in their first year, the time Miss Krantz falsely accused her of cheating. The memory lasts only for a flash; then the feeling passes.