Review posted August 4, 2016.
Philomel Books, 2016. 391 pages.
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #10 Teen Fiction
This is not a cheery book. I knew that, going in. I got the Advance Reader Copy signed by the author and learned that it is about the greatest naval disaster in history, happening in 1945, when nine thousand people lost their lives. The picture on the cover is of empty life preservers floating in a dark sea.
To make things a little worse, the characters in the book don’t even board the ship until the last section of the book. It’s also a book about war.
Knowing all those things, I had a hard time picking up this book! But when I did (on an airplane trip), I was so glad I had. You do come away with a feeling of hope and transcendence, despite huge difficulties the characters face along the way.
I think it’s fair to tell my readers that some people you care about die – but not everyone. It is possible to read this book and feel uplifted at the end, rather than depressed!
And Ruta Sepetys’ writing is outstanding. She does get you caring about these people, seeing from their eyes. The book is all based on fact. The greatest naval disaster in history, yet who in America today has heard of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff?
The author did voluminous research (reflected in the back matter), talking with many survivors as well as people who lost family in the disaster. And then she used all this information to bring the stories to life.
We get the perspectives of four different young adults. Every chapter is very short, and the backgrounds unfold in bits and pieces. We begin with Joana, a nurse of Lithuanian and German descent traveling with a group of refugees, fleeing toward the port city. Then we have Florian, who is Prussian and wounded but also fleeing and hiding an enormous secret. Florian stumbles across Emilia, and rescues her from being raped by a wandering Russian soldier. Emilia has her own secrets, and she’s Polish, who are despised by the Germans. Florian and Emilia join the group of refugees whom Joana is tending.
We also see the perspective of Alfred, who writes letters in his mind to Hannelore, a girl he left behind, about his exploits serving the Reich. We can see by the things that he’s called upon to do that his actual job is not so lofty as he describes it. He is going to be part of the reason our refugees are even able to board the Wilhelm Gustloff.
The background is that Germans are fleeing East Prussia ahead of the Russian army. An enormous evacuation happened in 1945, and this book helps the reader understand those desperate times.
Gradually, we learn the stories of each of the characters. I’m not going to say much more because the unfolding of the stories is part of the brilliance of the book. But we learn how each one was shaped by past choices leading to the road they’re taking now.
This is a wonderful book. I was kind of amazed by the time I finished how much I loved it, despite some of the horrendous things these people went through.