There aren’t a lot of books that the night I finish reading it, I wake and in my groggy state think back to the heartbreaking parts or dialogue. I mean, Come On Ruta Sepetys! This is not only based on a true story, but has amazing characters – brave, loyal, courageous, kind. And Emilia – a “warrior” (as Florian eventually calls her) for sure. Read it. Trust Me. Tears will flow, but they are worth it.
In 1945, thousands of refugees were trying to flee Germany. Joana, a Lithuanian, is hunted by guilt. Florian is Prussian has a plan he believes fate will hunt him or lead him to success. Emilia who is Polish is living in shame and Alfred, the German sailor, is hunted by fear and a strange view of self-importance. As these people come together, either trying to flee or trying to survive, each faces their fears and personal dangers.
This is the story of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff at the end of WWII when 10,000 people were boarded on the cruiser [built for 1,463 passengers] to evacuate East Prussia. Once at sea, a soviet submarine shot it with torpedoes and it sank, killing over 9,343 people. It is the deadliest maritime disaster in history. Sepetys writes of these hidden histories so that their stories are told and she does it so beautifully and respectfully.
I am still thinking of these characters 24 hours after completing the novel. War brings about horrible situations, especially to the children, which is shown through these characters as well as the thousands of refugees our group encounters along the roads, walking across frozen bodies of water, and later on the ship which seems a savior, but ends up killing thousands. Such wonderfully wise passages from The Poet, the elderly shoe maker who cares for Klaus, the 6 year old orphan, who still manages to find good in the world even as death surrounds all of them. The historic details gained from Sepetys’ research are heartbreaking and shocking, especially to the desperate parents and the children cast aside. The stories of the babies are really the only reason I would say 14 and over. This was the first time I read all of the author’s notes following the completion of a work of historical fiction.
One of my top favorites for historical fiction, books worth crying over, and overall goodness still being in the world when there appears to be none left. And that Emilia, quite the selfless warrior.