The sinking of the Gustloff is the largest maritime disaster, yet the world still knows nothing of it. I often wonder, will that ever change or will it remain just another secret swallowed by war?
WOAH. What an incredible book!
It was vastly different than the usual books I read. I’m usually a pretty hardcore Romance genre reader, but this story swept me away! I read it in a single day and had tears in my eyes in the end (letters always make me cry) and I keep thinking about this story in the back of my mind. I just can’t let go.
Whenever I’m going through a major book hangover, I like to try and switch up the genre I read. Given my intense love of reading, doing this allows me to still read, while trying something new, and yet allowing my emotions from my previous book the time to settle. So this time, I tried this book. Even though it’s not the kind of book I’d usually read, something about the cover, the title, and blurb really grabbed my attention.
The writing was absolutely incredible. Flawless and profound. This author is a very gifted storyteller. But her method in this book was unlike anything else I’ve ever read. Each chapter was literally only 1-3 pages long (!!) and each chapter was told from the points of view of four of the main characters (it switched each time). While it was weird at first, I caught on quickly to the rhythm and found that it totally worked for this story. In fact, I found it was astonishingly effective at portraying such a large-scale story as this, one that had so many different storylines converging in on each other, in a manner that made it completely character-driven. I genuinely loved it. The YA Historical Romance genre is nowhere near what I usually read, but I’m so glad I decided to read this particular one! It was powerful and beautifully written.
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, this bestselling and award-winning author lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II. An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope.
The story begins with all these different characters, for different reasons, all trying to make their way to docks, where they hope to board a ship that will take them to safety. But in order to get there, they first had to survive a dangerous journey on land through enemy check points, under fire from all sides, in danger of becoming victims of the brutal winter, in the middle of one of the largest wars in history.
A blind girl.
A mysterious soldier.
A pregnant teen.
A delusional sociopath.
A wandering boy.
A devastating war.
A bitter winer.
Thousands of miles.
One ill-fated sea voyage.
The chapters are all very short like I mentioned but every single one of them packs a punch and ends strong — which is really a testament to the power of this author’s writing. The upside to this storytelling method too is that there is no fluff in the book at all. You’re told everything you need to know and nothing more. Everything has meaning. And everything drives the story forward.
Things get quite intense the more you read, especially when the different storylines begin to converge. It’s like, you desperately want them all to stay together, and you naturally want them to get to safety and even though you know the ship is doomed, a part of you can’t help but hope that it isn’t. So it’s like counter-intuitive. You should be wanting all their plans to fall apart so that they can be safe. It’s such an interesting internal conflict to go through as a reader because you naturally want to root for their plans to work out.
Now, not to belittle the value of even one human life, but I just want to put some things into perspective for you to give you a sense of scale. The Titanic (which is widely known as one of the most famously tragic maritime disasters), lost 1,503 passengers when it went down. The Wilhelm Gustloff was built to carry 1,463 people. On the day it was sunk, it was carrying 10,574. It is estimated that 9,400 people died. The Titanic took two hours and forty minutes to sink. The Wilhelm Gustloff took less than an hour.
How foolish to believe we are more powerful than the sea or the sky.
When the torpedos hit, my heart was racing. I’d just spent a huge chunk of this book getting invested in these characters lives. Characters who I knew wouldn’t all be able to make it. It was beyond intense.
Also, while this is absolutely not a Romance at all, there is actually a little bit of a romance within one of the storylines, and I’m just going to come out and tell you that that romance does get a HEA. I don’t want you to think this is a book where everyone just dies in the end. That’s not the case. There is a lot of loss. But ultimately, this is both a story of loss and survival.
The ending left me with tears in my eyes. Letters always make me cry in book. And I was so surprised that my reaction at the very end was a smile on my face despite the tears… Like I said, this genre is not one I usually read or recommend from, but this particular book stood out to me and made me want to read it. If you’re in the mood to read something different, or maybe if this is a genre you already love, give this a try!
The final thing I want to leave you with is a quote from the author’s note at the back of the book…
Every nation has hidden history, countless stories preserved only by those who experienced them. Stories of war are often read and discussed worldwide by readers whose nations stood on opposite sides during battle. History divided us, but through reading we can be united in story, study, and remembrance. Books join us together as a global reading community, but more important, a global human community striving to learn from the past.
What determines how we remember history and which elements are preserved and penetrate the collective consciousness? If historical novels stir your interest, pursue the facts, the history, memoirs, and personal testimonies available. These are the shoulders that historical fiction sits upon. When the survivors are gone we must not let the truth disappear with them.
Please, give them a voice.
Rating: 4.5 stars. Standalone YA Historical Fiction.