Can history disappear if it’s written in blood?
Some stories just need to be told. And if it’s true that every human life is a story, then all stories need to be told.
In Salt to the Sea and Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys tells the stories of millions of souls, stories that are in danger of being lost. I think all of us know what Hitler did to the Jews. That atrocity has become common knowledge, a familiar stain on the tapestry of history. But we do not hear a lot about what Stalin did to the Poles and the Baltic people. Those tragedies are just as horrific.
The daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, Sepetys has a passion for telling the stories of those whose homes—and, all too often, lives—were taken by the Soviets. She does so through historical fiction, intended for young adults but read widely by adults as well. At first I wasn’t sure what to expect: All the reviews made her books sound so dark and meaningful and deep, so I wondered how they could be labeled as young adult. Then as I read the first chapter of Salt to the Sea—first person narration, sparse language, short—I questioned that this was as rich as the reviewers claimed. But when I finished the last page, heart racing, aching, sobbing, I understood.
Her use of teenaged protagonists enhances her message more than any other age could, because they are old enough to understand all the evil around them and the forces at work in their ruined worlds, and yet they are young enough to muster the strength, hope, and resilience to survive. They remember what life was like before the war, and yet they still dare to dream of a life after it.
My husband … says that evil will rule until good men or women choose to act.
In Salt to the Sea, Sepetys tells the story of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the German ship carrying thousands of refugees out of the Soviets’ path of destruction. German Florian is betrayed by the Nazis; Polish Emilia is longing for home and fighting for life; Lithuanian Joana uses her medical training to care for others while trying to forget her own scars. Their paths cross as they all attempt to board the ill-fated ship, each carrying deep secrets and facing almost impossible odds.
In Between Shades of Gray, Sepetys travels in the opposite direction as she chronicles the journey of Joana’s cousin, Lina. Taken from her home by the Soviets, she, her mother, and brother are separated from their father as they travel across all of Russia to frigid Siberia and struggle to survive in the fatal cold with little to no food.
“Just when you think this war has taken everything you loved, you meet someone and realize that somehow you still have more to give.”
I could talk about her writing—simple yet powerful, its sparseness making the painful truths she shares hit your heart harder than a hammer. I could talk about how in Salt to the Sea, she uses the first person for her four main characters and yet each sounds different and unique. There’s no question that her mechanics and style are praiseworthy. But there’s so much more to admire.
There’s the fact that she avoids the major pitfalls of young adult fiction: adults that are portrayed as weak, stupid, or non-existent; and too much romance based on emotion and physical desire. In Salt to the Sea, an elderly refugee nicknamed the Shoe Poet is, as Joana puts it, their light, their source of wisdom that they cling to and rely upon. In Between Shades of Gray, Lina’s love for her parents is beautiful, and her mother is portrayed as a heroine. While both books contain some romance, it is both clean and realistic. Both romances occur because the couples undergo incredible struggles together, and Sepetys demonstrates that while they might not have been attracted to each other had they met under normal circumstances, they grew to love each other after working together and building trust in terrifying times.
Then there are her villains. I can describe them in one word: masterful. In Salt to the Sea, she gives us a glimpse into the mind of a young Nazi sailor, Albert. Due to his ego, he ends up helping Florian, Joana, and Emilia, but his self-centered, propaganda-saturated thoughts are sickening and repulsive. That’s why he’s such an amazing villain: He makes you hate him. I was so disgusted by him that I wrote furious comments about him on my Kindle, something I’ve never done before. I’ve never felt so repelled and infuriated by a character, which is a testament to Sepetys’ talent.
In Between Shades of Gray, she twists the whole concept of villains on its head by portraying a Soviet soldier, Nicolai Kretzsky, sympathetically. As the story progresses, she reveals his humanity, his compassion for the prisoners that he is too afraid to show, and ultimately, his hatred of himself. The pain of his own story as a half-Pole rejected by the other Soviet soldiers and the despair he feels at what he has become pierced me. All villains are, at their hearts, humans.
War had bled the color from everything, leaving nothing behind but a storm of gray.
So, maybe you want to read this story now. Maybe you feel the pull of great writing and beautiful stories, of unforgettable characters and ringing truths.
Don’t give in. Don’t read these books.
Why? Because they hurt. These stories hurt. They are dark and painful and horrifying. I am not exaggerating in this: Not everyone could handle them. The atrocities Sepetys recounts with brutal honesty are sickening. The sufferings endured by the Baltic people are gut-wrenching. The tragedy of the sinking of the Wilhem Gustloff is horrific.
I closed both books feeling shaken, shattered. I felt a deep sob bottled in my chest, too large and too raw to be let loose. These kinds of things really happened in our world? Less than a hundred years ago? In the continent in which I know live? Dear God, why?
But it wasn’t despair. Had the stories ended in the hopelessness, I would have been less shaken. What shook me is that all this did happen and still, people lived. They made it through. Furthermore, they loved. They even laughed. That there could be hope in the face of such devastation, that there could be a future in the face of such irreparable loss—that is a truth Sepetys boldly confronts too. And this truth is so bright it blinds.
Was it harder to die, or harder to be the one who survived? I was sixteen, … [imprisoned] in Siberia, but I knew. It was the one thing I never questioned. I wanted to live.
That is what resonated so deeply with me about these books: They are true. Not only that all this—the mass murders and the survivals—actually happened in history, but that it is true that humans are capable of mind-boggling evil and also incredible love and bravery. It is true of this world, too, that there is a God in control of it who can give life and love and laughter in the midst of horrible travesties and enable humans to survive unthinkable hardships.
You have to decide for yourself if you can handle the darker aspects of these novels, but if you can, and if you choose to delve in the world of Joana, Florian, Emilia, and Lina—a world of shattering brutality and brilliant courage—you will be well rewarded. Don’t let these stories be forgotten.