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.
Have any of you heard of this ship? Do you know anything about Germany's evacuation of its citizens as the war was nearing an end and the outcome was inevitable? The answer to both of those questions for me is a resounding "No!" And, yet, the author makes us all understand what was happening through the 1st person voices of the 4 teenagers. And let me tell you that you will definitely care about them, along with others. I know I sure did. That might explain why I said "Oh, no. C__p!" on page 131. And why I felt like I did in Conroy's South of Broad when one of the main characters bit the dust on page 132. And why I felt like I was reading Sophie's Choice on page 157. And why I had chills and tears on page 261. And why I was nodding my head on page 268. And why I smiled and got teary on page 314. And why I yelled "Oh My God" on page 319. And why I winced on page 322. And why I kept shaking my head over the course of several pages starting with 326. And why I flat-out cried on page 338.
Have you heard (read) enough about my emotional breakdowns? Can I move along now? Okay. I've already compared it to All the Light We Cannot See because of the youth factor. But this book also reminds me of The Nightingale because it taught me some WWII history that I didn't know anything about. That's obviously a main function of historical fiction. It definitely works here.
Because the book flips back and forth among the 4 main characters, it took me a while to remember who was who (I don't know how to use "whom" here - or if I'm even supposed to). And partly for that reason it took me close to 100 pages to really get into it. But, ultimately, I really liked when they all came together (kind of like Strangers, by Dean Koontz). And I really liked reading from the 4 different viewpoints. In fact, there are 4 pages about 35 from the end of the book in which there is 1 line for each of the 4 leads. I thought that was particularly clever and effective.
And, on top of all these reasons why I liked the book, there's also the writing:
1. "His silence was elastic, slowly curling a rope around her neck."
2. "His skin clung to his bones like drenched clothing."
3. "The train, battered like a bruised fighter, hissed in the sidings."
There were nice moments in the book, like: "I tried not to, but I couldn't help it. I laughed. The wandering boy started to giggle. Eva burst out laughing. And then the most amazing thing happened. The German smiled and laughed. Hard." And horrifying moments in the book (you many not want to read this one), like "Mothers tried hurling their infants to passengers up on deck, but they couldn't throw them high enough. Their babies smashed against the side of the ship and plunged into the sea. Women screamed and dove into the water after their children." Can you even imagine?
The one thing I know for sure is that at the end of the book, you are going to want to do some research on the Wilhelm Gustloff. Trust me on this one. And thanks to Margie Scott Tucker, who runs the Books, Inc. Palo Alto 4th Tuesday Book Club, for picking Salt of the Sea for April. I can't wait to talk about it.