Author: Ruta Sepetys
Release Date: 2016
Genre: historical fiction, WW2, romance, teen fiction, travel, family, pain
My Rating: *****
Official Rating: teen fiction
Age Group: 16+ (or 18+, depending on reader's exposure)
Awards: Junior Library Guild Book Pick, 2015 Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Residency
"We the survivors are not the true witnesses. The true witnesses, those in possession of the unspeakable truth, are the drowned, the dead, the disappeared" --Primo Levi
Joana: a nurse from Lithuania, Lina's cousin, and just trying to make up for her mistakes by caring for those around her. Emilia: a young Polish girl running away, hiding a pregnancy, looking for some goodness in the world that mirrors the fairy tale world she so recently lived in. Alfred: a young German soldier, stuck in his own head, blind to the evils around him, eager to please but not wanting to work. Florian: a Prussian art scholar, fleeing two countries as he tries to avenge his father's death and find his sister before it is too late. And Sorry Eva and Wandering Boy Klaus and Shoe Poet and all the others.
Wilhelm Gustloff, the ship that will take the injured soldiers and refugees to safety.
The lives of these characters all converge until they find themselves aboard the Gustloff where they witness what the author calls "the single greatest tragedy in maritime history."
Word of Warning
- This is war. Horrible things happen, and the descriptions are not graphic but are rather stark. People are frozen dead, starve, shot, missing limbs, delirious, dying, drowning, getting crushed, and more. There is an assumed murder-sucicide of a family.
- We hear of the invasion of a town where the Russians raped the young women and slaughtered all the others. Later there is mention of getting someone's "skirt up", which is what the Russians would do (or so we are told).
- A young woman gives birth.
- A character has shrapnel embedded in his back which has to be removed without medical supplies.
- People are cruel animals to each other. Children die horrible deaths, parents are desperate, and people are generally heartless.
- Kisses. Flirting (honest, delirious, and twisted--though from different people).
- Lying. Cheating. Spying.
From a purely literary perspective, it is a work of art. The way the author shapes the narrative through the minds of four distinct characters from four different countries, all stories converging on the Gustloff, and giving incredibly historical perspective all along the way--this is a truly stunning book.
She's done it again. Ruta Sepetys, the author of Between Shades of Gray, has once again written us something that tears at our hearts while revealing to us the horrible truths of history which are so often overlooked.
It sounds horrible to say this is a good book. I might use the word "priceless" instead. Amid all the horror, we see people emerge as heroes. Amid all the smoke, we are at last shown the truth.
I have nothing valuable to say about this book aside from this: read it.