My Ranking: 3.5/5 Stars
Goodreads Ranking: 4.35/5 Stars
Cover Description: “Winter 1945. WWII. Four refugees. Four stories.
Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies, war. As thousands desperately 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. But not all promises can be kept . . .”
This premise of this book intrigued me. I feel like every child interested in history goes through a Titanic phase. You know the kind, where you research the ship, read books like White Star or A Night to Remember, watch Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s fictitious romance unfold in the movie. So learning that there was an even more deadly maritime disaster that I had never heard of intrigued me. And like any good reader, I decided my first foray into the matter would be a well-researched fiction novel. The reason? Books like these make the tragedy easier to bear by balancing disaster and hope. Over 90% of the people on that boat died, but the narrative follows victims and survivors. It doesn’t overwhelm the reader, which is what diving directly into the research threatens to do. Trying to comprehend the loss of life in all of World War II, of all the Jewish people, the refugees, the soldiers. I devour narratives like these because as they layer in my consciousness over years and years, I may begin to understand on a basic level the horror of WWII.
Now, onto this book specifically. This is the first of Ruta Sepetys’s books I have read, and I enjoy the way she writes. Her control of language and voice in this work is captivating. The way she conducts research and reconstructs a world through such beautifully selected details demonstrates her knowledge beyond the scope of what she places on the page.
Without a single spoiler, the thing that really bothered me about this book is how quickly it moved between the characters point of views. The chapters in this story were at most three pages long, and each chapter rotated between characters. This made it really hard to get to know our characters and to settle into the story, especially when they were all in the same place. It seemed like overkill. Even with well defined voices and perspectives, it is hard to jump around so much and still feel immersed.
Overall, I would recommend this book to people who are willing to work through it slowly and appreciate the details and the world created within the story. By the end of the story it really pulls on your heartstrings and reminds you how much history erases the story it deems unimportant.
In a strange way, for me, this book really turns into the story of Joanna and Emilia. Alfred and his letter’s to Hannelore slowly revealing that his lost love was Jewish and carted away to a concentration camp was predictable, and Alfred himself was acknowledged as an annoying and useless person within the story. In fact, his character providing a POV is really only useful when the ship goes down because his attention to detail provides factual information about the sinking that grounds the reader in the reality of the event. A purpose, that given his character’s near-insanity could have been given in mumbled ravings while he’s on the raft with Emilia. Florian provides important information to his character, his ambition to undermine the Reich, but overall it is not crucial to his survival, it is simply layering for the plot. The story centers on Emilia sacrificing herself for her child’s survival, and Joana surviving to build a family of her own. A survivor and a victim. The balance that half of our POV characters survive and more than half of our attached characters (characters that are presented for us to form attachment to throughout the story) survive is slightly unrealistic, but makes it easier to walk away from this book remembering that there were survivors. There was not a total loss.
The moment I think this book passes too quickly by is the people left on the pier. The image of women throwing their babies, trying to get them onto the ships, even if they cannot go with them. All of the people who knew that the ships didn’t mean sure survival, but no ship meant certain death. This moment is so brief that we don’t fully see how many more victims never saw a ship. Tragedy came in many forms that day.
Now, there aren’t many, but there are some moments in this book that were so well rendered that I would call them favorites, so I will include them here:
- Johanna stitching Florian’s side and discussing the music with him.
- The shoe poet telling everyone’s stories through their shoes
- Florian Sneaking Johanna’s painting back into her suitcase
- The Wandering boy introducing Florian as Uncle
- The woman with the goat in her stroller
- Florian getting Emilia to accept her child
- Emilia talking about her ‘sign’
- Emilia saving everyone in the sinking, sacrificing herself in the process
- Emilia’s heaven with her mother and her daughter and Fairy bread
- The image of Emilia tapping on the beach
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