The acclaimed Ruta Sepetys dredges up a sunken German military ship as she fictionalizes the greatest—and surprisingly little-known—tragedy in maritime history.
Shipwrecks and maritime disasters are of fathomless interest, with ships such as the Titanic and the Lusitania household names. It’s interesting that the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff during WWII, which led to the largest loss of life on a single ship in history, goes largely unremarked upon—at least in America. The numbers are staggering: far over capacity, the ship was carrying approximately 10,582 passengers when it was struck by Soviet torpedoes, and more than 9,400 of those passengers perished in the ensuing wreck, a death toll that dwarfs the Titanic’s assumed losses (around 1,500).
Part of the neglect might be due to timing. The ship was evacuating refugees and German citizens from Gotenhafen, Poland, when it was sunk in the Baltic Sea in the winter of 1945. Astounding losses defined WWII, and this became yet another tragedy buried under the other tragedies—after all, even 9,400 is dwarfed by six million. But it was a tragedy, and, like all tragedies, it broke the people involved down to their barest parts.
Sepetys has resurrected the story through the eyes of four young characters trying to reach safety as the Russian army advances: Joana, a Lithuanian nurse; Emilia, a pregnant Polish 15-year-old; Florian, a Prussian artist carrying dangerous cargo; and Alfred, a German naval soldier stationed on the Wilhelm Gustloff. Each has been touched by war and is hunted by the past, and, determined to get on a boat in any way possible, hurtling unknowingly towards disaster. With exquisite prose, Sepetys plumbs the depths of her quartet of characters, bringing each to the breaking point and back, shaping a narrative that is as much about the intricacies of human nature as it is about a historical catastrophe.
In many ways, the greatest punishment—and the
greatest of all tragedies—is to be forgotten.
Nominated for both the Morris Award and the Carnegie Medal for her first novel, Between Shades of Gray (2011), Sepetys returns to those roots with another harrowing, impeccably researched story of hardship and survival in Eastern Europe. When reading a book so likely to end in tears, one inclination is to avoid getting attached to any of the characters, but that’s next to impossible here, so thoroughly does Sepetys mine their inner landscapes. That doesn’t mean they are all likable—as it breeds heroes, so, too, does calamity breed cowards and opportunists—but it does make it difficult to think of them as anything other than real people. After all, the ship was very real. It does the people aboard a disservice not to reflect them the best one can.
In many ways, the greatest punishment—and the greatest of all tragedies—is to be forgotten. This haunting gem of a novel begs to be remembered, and in turn, it tries to remember the thousands of real people its fictional characters represent. What it asks of us is that their memories—and their stories—not be abandoned to the sea.
This review first appeared in the December 1, 2015, issue of Booklist.