Archive for the ‘Ruta Sepetys’ Category


It is the tail end of World War II. Throughout the war, the Germans headed east through Poland and Prussia while the Soviets headed west through Lithuania and Prussia, destroying everything in their path. The result, hundreds of thousands of displaced persons. Truth be told, both armies showed a barbarism that is unequaled.


Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys folds the wandering of refugees into the story of the “deadliest disaster in maritime history, with losses dwarfing the death tolls of the famous ships Titanic and Lusitania.” Told in first person by four dramatically different people, the plight of refugees is vividly told by the characters and experienced by the readers.

Emilia, a pregnant Polish teenager, is saved from the rape of a Russian soldier by Florian, a disillusioned and deserting German soldier who has taken retribution against his superiors for their duplicity. Joana, a Lithuanian, is traveling to find her mother after years of separation. Alfred is a foolish, dimwitted German soldier who has seen the light of Hitler’s words and fancies himself medal-worthy, although he is far from it.

These four end up in the port of Gotenhafen and board the evacuation ship the Wilhelm Gustloff carrying 10,000+ passengers, which was ultimately torpedoed by a Russian submarine.

Characters in Salt to the Sea run the gamut from the self-centered, fearful of everyone Eva to the selfless old shoemaker Heinz. While you can understand Eva’s survival instinct and don’t dislike her for it, it is Heinz that comes through as the shining star, the wise old man always with words of comfort and encouragement.

The alternating chapters by the four individuals works well.  The writing and storyline keep readers wanting more. Salt to the Sea is heartbreaking at times, poignant at other times, scary most of the time.

My only criticism, and it isn’t a big one, is that the background of the story is included in the Author’s Note at the end. Having very little knowledge about the war in Prussia, a little history at the outset would have been nice. However, Sepetys includes a list of resources used in researching the book which was several years in the making.

There is no happy ending because how can there be with the devastation and destruction brought about by the war? But there is hope because there are people who tend to others before themselves, although they are vastly outnumbered.

Although it is the beginning of the year, I’m sure Salt to the Sea will be on my 2016 Top Ten list.



Read Full Post »

OutoftheEasyThere is this atmosphere in New Orleans. The heat and heavy humidity. The moss draped over the branches of ancient trees. The galleries on the second floors of homes. The excesses that mark everyday life. The permissiveness known but rarely discussed. 1950s New Orleans is captured wonderfully in Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys and anyone who has been to New Orleans can picture the scene.

Any book that starts with “My mother is a prostitute. Not the filthy, streetwalking kind.” has something to offer. The narrator, Josie, named after a Madam, is seventeen. She’s been on her own since age seven, sleeping above the bookstore in which she works. She also works every morning cleaning up the night’s remainders after the girls at Willie’s brothel, where her mother works when she isn’t running away with Cincinatti, a dangerous but petty thief.

When the sophisticated and handsome Forrest L. Hearne, Jr. (in from Tennessee for the Sugar Bowl) enters the bookstore and engages her in intellectual conversation, she puts him on the list of fantasy fathers. When he is found dead the next day of an apparent heart attack, she feels something is wrong.

Josie’s longing to leave the Big Easy, disassociate herself with her past, is her overriding goal. She is smart and college is a dream spurred on by an acquaintance, Charlotte, who attends Smith and prods Josie to apply. But how do you leave your mother who is up to her eyeballs in the Hearne affair? How do you leave the gruff but benevolent Willie or the ‘nieces’ in her house? And Cokie, the cab driver who befriended them when they arrived in New Orleans.

There are all kinds of characters in New Orleans and they appear in Out of the Easy; the ones you hate and the ones you love. Sepetys’ writing is vivid. Her story is engrossing. Her characters are your friends. It’s three months into the new year and already my Top 10 lists has a lot of candidates. I’m betting Out of the Easy will make the final cut. It’ll be that easy!

Read Full Post »

BetweenShadesOfGrayI began reading Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman at the suggestion of my kids. A book about good and evil and the Apocolypse, Satan at one point basically says that people have dreamed up more horrid and inhumane ways of torturing each other than even Satan could come up with. Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys’ haunting debut novel is testament to this fact.

While much has been written about the atrocities of Hitler during World War II, little has been written about the atrocities of Stalin in the early 1940s as he annexed the Baltic States of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. Lina, a fifteen year old Lithuanian, her ten year old brother and their mother are startled one evening by the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB, pounding on their door and telling them they have twenty minutes to pack their things. Thus begins a brutal 10 year journey that only some will survive, taking them across Russia to Siberia and ultimately to the Arctic Circle.

Man’s inhumanity to man is evident on every page as Lithuanians are categorized as “thieves and prostitutes”, beaten up, spit upon, made to work long hours with little nourishment; made to endure extreme cold with no wood for a fire or warm clothing. As I read this, I couldn’t imagine the joy the NKVD derived from taunting their captives who had nothing. I couldn’t fathom how the Lina and the other prisoners persevered under such dire circumstances, how they maintained their faith in returning home and how any of them survived at all.

Sepetys also describes how some of the captives were so self-centered as to do nothing for their comrades while others were so selfless, doing for everyone, even those who would not return the gesture.

Although it is impossible to feel Lina’s pain without having experienced her journey, readers will come as close as possible to living alongside the characters. Despite the stomach churning atrocities being described, I couldn’t put the book down because of the way Sepetys describes how people bolstered each other, how Lina drew her surroundings at first to keep up her spirits and later to document her life. I was amazed to find out from the Acknowledgements that even when finally allowed to return to their homelands, merely discussing their deportation was cause for imprisonment or a return to Siberia.

Between Shades of Gray is a must read. We all must hope that reading and talking about the atrocities of the past will eliminate them in the future.

Read Full Post »