Cairo’s Bibliomane: The Wilhelm Gustloff & Its Tragedies

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Written by Manar Nassef

“How foolish to believe we are more powerful than the sea or the sky”.

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Ruta Sepetys is usually a historical romance writer, but this new book of hers, Salt to the Sea, is just so good to the point that you forget that. Personally, I’m not a fan of the historical romance genre; I realize it may be very likely for the stories to be relatable on an emotional level, however, they are often bland – as in, one dimensional in the sense that the act of being loved and loving is summarized into very few basic behaviors and roles, undermining the intensity and reality of an imperfect romance, while overvaluing what may be very simple acts.

Before reading this I thought it would be another normal historical romance book, but I was mistaken. This was actually the first book I read in 2017, I was looking for something different when I came across this and it instantly caught my attention. I was hoping to read the books that won the Goodreads choice awards, and this happened to be the one that won for the young adult fiction category .I can now say that it is one of my favorite books.

The book revolves around four main characters and each chapter is told from one character’s point of view. The narration is a bit annoying to get used to at first considering that the average chapter is 3 pages long, but after a couple of pages it’s so easy to follow the rhythm. Everything felt so vivid throughout the whole book, anything that made the character’s heart race, made mine race, every fear was not the character’s alone, but also mine. A caretaking nurse, a mysterious soldier, a pregnant teen and a delusional sociopath all following something on The Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that will hopefully carry them to their family, safety, vengeance and glory amid WWII.

It was so easy to get attached to the characters; I don’t think Ruta had to even try. As a reader you can easily predict that a happy ending is too difficult to attain in a book like this. However, I was in a phase of denial throughout the book as I got to know the characters more.

The Wilhelm Gustloff

It’s clearly pre-established that this is NOT intended to be a romantic story by any stretch of the word, despite of that, you will still come across these small, loving and affectionate momentary glimpses that’ll make your heart ache for the characters, and you will helplessly feel empathetic for their struggles; you get to feel how the racism and bigotry of one person could ruin thousands of lives, how traumatized the characters are as a result of the aforementioned discrimination.

The book also points to the multiple tragedies that are often not spoken about, the characters may be fictional, but The Wilhelm Gustloff definitely isn’t. Ruta makes sure to acknowledge a ship that had death tolls surpassing those of the Titanic and Lusitania, yet not many people are aware of this. The remnants of this ship – now called by some people The Ghost ship – lies off the coast of Poland. We are reminded at the end of the book to give the survivors who are gone a voice, to let their story be known.

I would recommend this book to anyone feeling like they want to read something different, it will definitely be worth your time. The writing is so simple that you can easily finish the book in one sitting. Especially with the short chapters whispering to you ‘read one more’ till the whole book is gone. Historical books are always so dense to read, more so those relating to WWII, but not this one.

Watch Ruta Sepetys Talk about the book here.

Thoughts?

Give this book a read and tell your friends about it. Tell us what you think, and if you have read it, comment! And tell us how it made you feel.

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