by Ruta Sepetys
World War II is nearly over but thousands of refugees have nowhere to go. Alternating voices from four perspectives tells their converging stories when three of their paths cross as they trek through eastern Prussia toward the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that might take them to freedom. Each of the narrators has something to hide: Joana, a Lithuanian nurse believes herself to be a murderer; Emelia, a Polish fifteen-year-old secretive, is pregnant girl; Florian, a young Prussian soldier has deserted the Army and is carrying a mysterious parcel; and Alfred, a German sailor assigned to the Wilhelm is delusional, full of himself, and devoted to Hitler. With the exception of Alfred, the characters are warmly human and likable. Alfred, on the other hand, is not but his story helps tell the German role in the late war and sets up events on the ship. Sepetys has crafted another meticulously researched historical fiction story. Her poetic prose moderates the harsh realities of war and the setting but does not mask them. The short chapters gradually disclose each refugee’s heart-rending story, as well as that of an older cobbler poet, a runaway boy, and a large, negative woman. By the time the refugees reach the ship, the reader should sense they are heading for disaster as Alfred has provided details on the ship’s capacity and actual load. The ending is, of course, inevitable but the connection to the characters will keep readers quickly turning pages to reach the book’s heartbreaking conclusion that does include loss of a character. Sepetys tells a beautifully written, little known, and important moment of history, while helping young adults experience the best and worst of humanity and the strong will to persevere and survive. Back matter includes an informative Author’s Note and a map.
Reviewer: Peg Glisson