In the winter of 1945, thousands of refugees travel through East Prussia to the coast of the Baltic Sea, in the hopes that they will be able to board a ship and find safety from the advancing Soviet troops. Four different perspectives converge to tell the story of one of the largest disasters in maritime history. This is a story that is hard to forget.
Fate is a hunter
I feel compelled to tell you that I have a personal connection that really affected the way that I read this book. I don’t have any connections with the Wilhelm Gustloff specifically, or with World War II, but my great-grandmother was the youngest survivor of a shipwreck. When she was eight years old, she boarded the Empress of Ireland with her parents, and it sank before it even made it out of the St. Lawrence River. Her parents drowned, and she was the youngest of the four children that survived the wreck. Because of this connection, I found the details of the shipwreck itself more than heartbreaking. I could not stop connecting this shipwreck to what little eight-year-old Gracie must have experienced, and I was gutted. I do have to say, that Ruta Sepetys did not glamorize the shipwreck in any way. This was a complete tragedy, and it was treated as such. It was not romanticized, it was not infantilized, it did not feel watered down. And I am grateful for that.
As for the rest of the book, I found it incredibly compelling. The entire thing is written in very short chapters, and we alternate between very different characters’ perspectives. One character doesn’t speak the same language as the other three, one character is a Nazi soldier (and quite disturbed), and all the characters are keeping closely guarded secrets. I read the entire book within one day. I just had to keep picking it back up, I couldn’t let the story lie. I really appreciated getting to read about World War II from the perspective of these refugees. Not the people who were sent to camps, not the people who had to fight, but the other people. The ones whose stories we haven’t had the chance to hear. Those young people who were thrown around by forces beyond their control before they even had a chance to understand what normal should be.
Survival had its price: guilt.
This was a beautifully written book, that shines a light on a part of World War II that often gets overlooked. It is gripping, it is honest, and it is heartbreaking. Make sure you have a box of tissues handy. You’ll need them.