Picks and Pans Review: Star of Peace

updated 02/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Jan de Hartog

The year is 1939, and a young Dutch captain has just taken over his father's decrepit ship, Star of Peace. His first job is to pick up 250 Jewish refugees in Hamburg—old people, women and children, the ones the Nazis have no use for. The Jews are to be taken to Uruguay. When the ship gets there, however, it turns out that the Germans have faked the necessary visas and documents, and the Uruguayans will not take the captain's cargo. No other country will have them either. Part of this old-fashioned novel is told through the eyes of a young doctor, a womanizer who was unable to get a job other than that of medical officer on this pitiful ship. The captain, a recently converted Christian, decides he will take his passengers to the U.S. and send them ashore at night. De Hartog, author of 16 books (most about the sea) and four plays (including The Fourposter), uses prose that is often, to put it gently, quaint (the captain "went through the midnight of his soul"). The plot is reminiscent of a real incident that was the basis for a 1976 film, Voyage of the Damned. Despite its shortcomings, though, this book has a consistent appeal. Details of the old ship and the sea are engrossing, the melodramatic confrontation of good and evil is powerful, and the refugees' dilemma is inescapably moving. At a time when too many novels are peopled with characters who are nasty opportunists, it's rewarding to read about a good man who makes an important sacrifice. (Harper & Row, $16.95)

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