The story is told from the point of view of four people who must depend on each other for survival: Joana, a beautiful Lithuanian nurse-assistant; Emilia, a young Polish girl with a big secret; Florian, a East Prussian man carrying important Nazi papers and an rare artifact; and Albert, a German soldier who dreams of being important but his dream world and his real world do not match up. Each of the narrators reveal bits of the story in alternating short chapters. The three characters Joana, Florian, and Emilia meet up on the road as they make their way to a port town, Gotenhafen, where they will seek passage on any ship leaving the area. Albert is the first German soldier they meet in town and they find in him a willing accomplice to their plans to get aboard a ship and to stay together.
The fast pace of the book makes it seem like a thriller, yet each person is holding back a big secret to the story has the edge of a good mystery. Yet the book is mainly touted as historical fiction impeccably researched by Sepetys. Whatever genre you want to apply to this book, it is worth the read.
My only criticism, if it is a criticism at all, is the shortness of each chapter. Readers are given such small snippets of information at a time it is difficult to figure out what is happening and the importance of the fragments until well into the book. And then, because we know what awaits our protagonists, we spend the rest of the book wanting to scream, "don't get on the ship."
I met Ruta Sepetys several years ago after publication of her first book, Between Shades of Gray. That book was also about a little known or not oft reported event from WWII, the relocation and crushing of thousands of people from the Baltic States under Stalin. Her grandfather had been a commander in the Lithuanian army prior to WWII and he and his family had had to escape the country to avoid being swept up in the purge Stalin conducted. Many of her family members did not escape, however. That story is authentic and heart-wrenching. This story about the other end of that horrific war is similarly gut-wrenching and enlightening. The part that got to me the most, though I knew I was reading a fictional account of the events, these accounts were based on real events and it just about broke my heart to think about all the refugees fighting to stay alive by any means possible. It reminds me of events happening today in the Middle East and in Europe.
This book qualifies by virtue of its publication date and its target audience of young adults as a potential Printz contender. I will likely recommend that we include the book on our Mock Printz list of selected books.
2017 Printz Award Contenders
10 / 35 books. 28% done!