It took me a couple of months but I finally finished this book. It was not my favorite of Sepetys’ three novels, but certainly ranks high as far as historical fiction goes. Reading the Author’s Note at the end gave me a greater appreciation for the amount of research Sepetys does for her novels. You know she’s dedicated when she spends 3 years doing research, interviews, tours, and traveling to multiple countries for 1 novel. I don’t have the patience to finish anything I start. That’s why I will never be a novelist. Plus, as most writers I hate my own work.
This novel is unique because Sepetys tells the story of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff through the voices of 4 characters. Joanna, is a young Lithuanian nurse trying to help others to appease her guilty conscience. She meets Emilia, a 15 year old pregnant Polish girl trying to survive the deathly cold alongside Florian, a mysterious Prussian who is hiding a secret from everyone. The three characters come into contact with the fourth, Alfred, aboard the Wilhelm Gustlaff at the end of World War II. All 4 characters have a story to tell of how they are trying to survive the war.
I like the fact that not all the characters are likeable, especially Alfred. He is a tormented soul, not quite all there mentally but still a three-dimensional character. He writes letters to his Hannelore in his head, to keep himself sane and boost his ego about being an important soldier serving Hitler.
Joanna was probably my favorite. She is a young woman full of emotions but trying to hide them all. She is interested in Florian, whom Emilia calls “the knight.” She tries very hard to help others as best she can, to make up for all the needless guilt she feels. I related to her the most.
Emilia is a quiet, young girl with a strong will to fight all through all of the suffering she has endured. She stays close to Florian because she views him as her savior, literally and figuratively. She looks to him as protection and safe-keeping from the war.
Florian was a hard one to figure out. You don’t quite know his whole story until the very end. He is on a mission to save an important artifact but pretends to work for Hitler most of the time, to save his life. He doesn’t open up to anyone until he meets Joanna. I like him because he is the romantic figure in the book without trying to be.
Although I liked this novel a lot, I will say the shipwreck portion was a bit disappointing for me. I have seen the movie Titanic a hundred times and this has some of the same descriptions and lines as the movie. I will say she did do her research and got the time period very accurate as to what would have been available in case of a ship sinking and the realities of imminent death. I just wished for something a little bit different I suppose.
I would highly recommend this book, especially if you like historical fiction/ or World War II accounts.
I give this one a 3.5/5.