Summary: World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, many with something to hide. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes
My Review: This is based on the true story of the maritime tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff. The story is told in alternating chapters between four characters: Joana, Emilie, Florian, and Alfred.
Joana’s entire village in Lithuania is gone and she has no idea if her family has survived. Her background of nursing skills comes in handy very often throughout the novel. She tends to be the mother hen of the group, which also include a woman named Eva, an elderly gentleman they call the Poet, and a young boy they found wandering in the woods. Though wracked by guilt for reasons that are revealed in the story, she keeps a level head throughout most of the story.
Emilia is from Poland and is hiding a few secrets of her own. She is the more sensitive member of the group. She meets Florian when he saves her from a solider and for the rest of the story, she follows him wherever he goes. She shows a surprising inner strength as the story progresses.
Florian also has some secrets. He stubbornly went own his own path instead of listening to his father and he harbors many regrets over it. He is a very reluctant hero through most of the book.
Alfred is a soldier on board the Gustloff. Most of his chapters are told through letters he mentally writes to a girl in his town. His characters gets revealed with each of his chapters and I truly hated him by the end of the novel and hoped for his demise.
Ruta Sepetys did not disappoint with this book. As with Between Shades of Gray, she sheds light on a piece of World War II history not covered before in young adult fiction. I instantly went online to read more about this horrific tragedy after reading the books. It would seem it would be hard to get a grasp on the characters as four different people are telling the story, but I feel this enhanced the book instead. My attention was grabbed within a few pages and I could not put this book down.