Published by Philomel Books on 2/2/16
Source: My Secret Sister!, The Publisher
My content rating: Mature YA (Some difficult themes - war, death, rape, etc.)
Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.
Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.
As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.
Yet not all promises can be kept.
Inspired by the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, bestselling and award-winning author Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray) lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II. An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope.
This book was simply beautiful and stunning! I was immersed in these characters’ lives and emotions and pulled into the pain of people enduring in this horrific period of our world’s history.
What Fed My Addiction:
- A different view of WWII. One of the aspects of this book that I absolutely loved was the fact that it gave such a different view of WWII than is typical in historical fiction from that period. The story is told from the perspective of teens and young adults who are fleeing the Russian army and attempting to get back to Germany after being given permission from Hitler. Only one of the characters was actually dedicated to Hitler and held his ideals, but I thought it was fascinating to read a story where the “other side” was seen as just as villainous at Hitler. Many of the people on “Hitler’s side” were simply caught in the crossfires of a terrible war and weren’t truly Nazis. These people were just trying to survive, and when the Russians invaded their countries, they brought destruction and terror (including raping many of the women and girls). This story is told from the perspective of people fleeing that terror. The tragedy of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is completely overlooked, even though over 9,000 people died (only 1,500 died on The Titanic). Why? Probably partially because in wartime so many people die that the horror of losing some is dampened, but also because these people were on the wrong side of the war. When we think of WWII, we don’t think of the Germans or others aligned with Hitler who died, even though many of those people were simply trying to survive in horrific circumstances. Don’t get me wrong – this book does not glorify Hitler in any way or even really make us sympathize with characters who agree with him (even though these characters were all fleeing under Hitler’s protection, most of them disagreed with his ideals – they were just people trying to make it out alive). I found it fascinating to see the war from this “other” perspective that we rarely see.
- Multiple POVs. This book was told in very short chapters, and each chapter was told from the perspective of one of four characters. This could have made for a choppy, disconnected read, but that was not the case at all with this book. If anything, the very short chapters encouraged me to keep turning the pages and read “just one more chapter” – I couldn’t put the book down! And I found myself emotionally invested in each and every one of the characters’ stories right till the very end.
- Emilia – A 15-year-old Polish girl who is fleeing the horrors of the Nemmersdorf massacre (this horrific Russian invasion actually happened – you can click this link to read about it – thanks to Britt @ Please Feed the Bookworm for pointing this information out!). Emilia has a terrible secret that both haunts her and drives her to flee for her life – but since she’s Polish, she is considered “sub-human” by the Nazis. Her only chance at escaping the war-torn land is to hide her ethnicity (she looks Aryan, but speaks very little German) and attempt to flee to Germany. Her story is incredibly poignant and captured my heart the most intensely.
- Joana – A Lithuanian nurse in her early twenties. Her mother had German heritage, so she’s been granted Hitler’s protection. Joana’s caring nature makes her perfect for the medical profession, but it also makes her feel the pain and losses around her more keenly. She feels guilt over the people she hasn’t been able to save, but she fights hard for those around her to make up for it. There is an element of romance to the story between her and Florian.
- Florian – A Prussian boy about nineteen or twenty. He has incredible artistic skill (specializes in restoring artwork) and was unwittingly part of Hitler’s efforts to steal the world’s most precious works of art. When he realizes what is happening, he flees – with a dangerous secret.
- Alfred – A German soldier in his twenties. Unlike the other characters, he believes in Hitler’s ideals and mission. Much of his story is told through “letters” that he writes to his long lost love in his head, but it becomes obvious relatively early on that something is “off” about him – his letters do not match the bits of reality that we see around him. I don’t want to say too much about Alfred because I feel like it would spoil things, but I will say that his character is fascinating (not always in the best of ways).
- Emotional roller coaster. This book took me on an incredible emotional journey. One that never lessened its grip on my heart. Even though I knew the tragic end to this story, that didn’t lessen the emotional impact in any way. This book ended with me in tears – no surprise there!
What Left Me Wanting More:
- Not much. I have to really stretch to think of anything about this book that I didn’t love. So, I’m not going to try.
If you’re at all interested in WWII historical fiction, if you enjoy tragic stories like the story of The Titanic or if you just enjoy emotionally compelling books, you should pick this book up! I easily give it 5/5 stars!
***Disclosure: I received this book as a gift (thanks Emily @ Red House Books). Emily picked the book up at ALA in exchange for an honest review. No other compensation was given and all opinions are my own.***
About the Author
Ruta Sepetys was born and raised in Michigan in a family of artists, readers, and music lovers. As an author of historical fiction, Ruta is drawn to stories of strength through struggle. Her award-winning debut novel, “Between Shades of Gray” was inspired by her family’s history in Lithuania and is published in 45 countries. Her second novel, “Out of the Easy” is set in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1950, and her third novel “Salt to the Sea” exposes one of the greatest hidden disasters of World War II. Ruta lives in a treehouse in the hills of Tennessee.