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In the summer of 1948, 11-year-old Anna and her younger cousin play a game called Storm at Sea. They imagine their heroic efforts on a wave-tossed ship rescuing drowning family members who have fallen overboard.

Anna wishes that real storms and calamities are a thing of the past since the end of World War II and the liberation of her native Czechoslovakia from the Nazi oppressors by the Russian army. But the Communist liberators have become the new dictatorship, and Anna’s father has escaped the country because of his pro-democracy sentiments.

Since the Communists have encouraged everyone to spy on their neighbors and report anyone who doesn’t support them, Anna thinks, “It feels like danger is closing in all around us and we are not even free to be ourselves.”

One evening, after a lovely day of playing with her cousin on the family farm, Anna is suddenly told to get ready for a trip to visit another cousin. Instead of the visit she expects, Anna, her mother, and sister Ruzena begin a treacherous journey to freedom. They face betrayal and suspicion, and Anna thinks, “It’s getting harder and harder to believe that we could ever trust anybody again—and yet this whole journey depends upon us doing just that.” However, they also encounter kindness, and the young girl realizes, “I am learning that people can surprise you with kindness when you least expect it.”

This poignant, wistful novel for middle school readers is based on the true story of author Maria Kiely’s mother’s escape from Czechoslovakia when she was 11 in 1948. In an age-appropriate way, the book portrays the harsh realities of life under a dictatorship, the struggle of refugees to survive, and the longing for home, an ache for a place that one might never return to. Despite the book’s somber subject matter, Kiely’s narrative lands on a note of hope. (Nancy Paulsen Books)

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