by Ruta Sepetys
First sentence: “Guilt is a hunter.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some disturbing elements — it is the horrors of WWII, after all — including violence and rape, though none of it is graphic. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore, but I’d give it to an interested 7th- or 8th-grader.
One of the things I really admire about Sepetys is her willingness to tell the untold story. The story that’s been buried or neglected because of the way history has been told. The story that’s difficult to face or bear. She looks at them unflinchingly, and compels us to bear this hard history with her. It’s a difficult thing, but she does it so eloquently we just can’t look away.
This time around she tackles the sinking of the Willhelm Gustloff, a Nazi ship that was carrying 10,000+ refugees that was sunk by the Soviets near the end of the war. We follow four young adults (they range in age from 15 to 21) — Emelia, a pregnant Polish refugee; Florian, a Prussian who’s on the run with a stolen secret; Joana, a Lithuanian nurse who’s been able to repatriate into Germany, and who’s searching for her mother; and Alfred a young Nazi recruit who is a bit… off — as they head toward the ship in the dead of winter. The chapters are short, almost poetic, and they intertwine in compelling ways. It propels you forward, in spite of the horrors (perhaps because of them?). The minor characters — the orphan boy Joana finds, as well as the shoemaker they travel with, among others — are just as fleshed out and real as the main characters. Sepetys didn’t cut corners, and I appreciated that.
It’s exactly what I’ve come to expect from her. And that’s the best thing.