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Published by Philomel Books
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.
It always amazes me how little people actually know about the events of World War II. The war didn’t end with Hitler’s death – people always seem to forget that fact. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is the largest maritime disaster in history and yet people know so little about the 10,000+ people who lost their lives that day.
I haven’t read Sepetys Shades of Gray (but I’ll be adding that to my TBR list!), but boy am I impressed. It was impossible to read this book and not feel the absolute weight of despair and for the characters. It was impossible to not have so many feelings about this book, that I doubted my ability to actually be able to put them into words for this review.
The story is told in four alternating perspectives, each more haunting than the next.
Emila, a young Polish girl (described with her pink hat) has the most chilling story. View Spoiler »As the story unfolds you realize the people who were to look after her, gave her to Russian soldiers who raped her. She ends up pregnant and blurring the lines between reality and fiction, as she adjusts to what has been done to her. « Hide Spoiler Her story is truly heartbreaking.
“I became good at pretending. I became so good that after a while the lines blurred between my truth and fiction. And sometimes, when I did a really good job of pretending, I even fooled myself.”
Joana, a young Lithuanian who escaped Stalin for Hitler, lives with the guilt of what she left behind. She’s a med student and an obvious leader of the rag tag band attempting to evacuate. I read that Joana is related to a character from Sepetys Shades of Gray, I feel like I would have understood her guilt more had I read that first.
Florian, a German recruited for his art skills, is ravaged by revenge. I really loved Florian’s character, the art looting angle was really well done (and involving the Amber Room!). Nazi looting of Europe’s museums is a really interesting story and as a museum professional I always love fictional interpretations.
Alfred, a loyal German sailor, who wants to be a hero but is also a sociopath. He knows the Gustloff is unprepared for the tens of thousands of people who hope to escape. His chapters were chilling – but also so fascinating to get into that perspective.
Each individual story line never felt like it was out of place, or boring. The supporting characters (the blind girl, the orphan boy, the shoemaker – all really well written and fleshed out). If you know the story of the Gustloff, then you know how it ends. This book definitely won’t be for everyone, but is a really interesting look into the largest and virtually unknown maritime disaster.
“Just when you think this war has taken everything you loved, you meet someone and realize that somehow you still have more to give.”