First Lines: Guilt is a hunter. My conscience mocked me, picking fights like a petulant child. It’s all your fault, the voice whispered.
Around this time of year, my students dive into the Holocaust novels, and one of the options is Sepetys’s Between Shades of Gray. I thought it would be awesome to read her newest novel at the same time. Same time period and everything. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that one of the main characters in this book was a minor character in Gray.
It’s winter, 1945. Germany is losing the war and scrambling to keep what control they have. Four teenagers, all with secrets of their own, meet on accident. Each one hunted and haunted by the war and the tragedies in their pasts. To flee the Soviets, they will all find their way to the Wilhelm Gustloff along with thousands of other refugees, a ship that promises freedom and safety. But not all promises can be kept…
I went into this book with zero knowledge of this event. I mean, I’m really well-versed in the Titanic disaster, and I know a bit about the Lusitania. But the Wilhelm Gustloff? Never heard of it. And actually, that made this story better because I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen or when/how/why.
The story follows four teenagers, as I mentioned. Two boys, two girls. As I mentioned, one of them makes a reappearance from Between Shades of Gray, which was freaking awesome. But what I love about Sepetys is that her characters always feel so real. Each had their own distinct personalities and ticks, secrets and habits. There’s even one character that has this unreliable narration thing going on. After a while, something about him just starts to seem off and you have to start questioning whether or not these things are real. It was kind of fascinating, studying him from the perspective of the other characters. But I’m an English major, so….
The chapters in this book are incredibly short. We’re talking like 2 pages most of the time before it switches from one narrator to the next. It takes a little getting used to, because I kept mixing things up at the beginning before I got to know each of the characters. But after that, it actually worked pretty well. And it made it impossible to put down. How are you supposed to stop when you know the next chapter is a page and a half? And that the chapter after that is two pages?
The brilliance of Sepetys is the way she weaves history into the story. It always feels like every single detail has been meticulously researched. The ship, the way the refugees interacted with each other, clothing, hostilities between nations, even shoes. So much research has gone into this book and it just makes it that much easier to feel like I’m actually there.
For as much as I loved it, I still hit a few hiccups with this book. Any fans of Sepetys will know that what I’m about to complain about are pretty common in her books. The vast majority of the book is rather slow. It’s building the world, developing the characters, and setting up the ship’s story. All of this is great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not exactly exciting.
Also, the ending is rather abrupt and a little confusing. (My students reading Gray have had similar complaints.) It’s not very satisfying, but I also kind of understand why she ends these books this way. I mean, these are all based on real experiences, real tragedy. It’s not like the real survivors’ lives just cleanly wrapped up and ended with a happily ever after. So I get it, but it always still feels a little like a let-down when you get to the end.
Still, I did enjoy the book. Sepetys will continue being a must-read for me when it comes to historical fictions.