Book review ‘Salt to the Sea’ by Ruta Sepetys

I saw Ruta Sepetys speak at the Hay Festival in May and I’m so glad I did, because otherwise this book may not have crossed my radar. It’s being marketed as a Young Adult novel (though DO NOT let that put you off) and there were many young people in the audience with whom Ruta was gracious, charming and generally lovely.

RutaThis book is magnificent and I urge you to read it. It was my book club read this month and we all loved it. It concerns a period in hsitory that is seldom openly discussed – the brutality of the Russian advance into Germany at the end of the WW2. One of the earliest books I reviewed on this blog was A Woman in Berlin (Anonymous author) which was an account, reputedly a true story, of the siege of that city and its final capture by Russian troops who, half-starved and brutalised themselves, set about rape and pillage of the native population (which by that stage was mostly women, children, older men and the infirm) on an industrial scale. It is tough reading. My WW2 history is not great so correct me if I’m wrong, but these events are not widely recognised and discussed because of course Stalin was part of the Allied group which defeated Hitler. There was, and, arguably, continues to be, a reluctance to openly acknowledge anything which might tarnish the glory of that victory. We all know that the Allies committed many atrocities in the name of war, but somehow these have been brushed over.

Enough of the political history because Salt to the Sea is so much more than that; it concerns an event that almost no-one knows about, the sinking of the civilian ship Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 by a Russian submarine, resulting in the largest loss of life at sea in maritime history, My children at school know all about the Titanic, thanks to the movie and the 100th anniversary of its sinking in 2012. A little over 1,500 people died in that disaster. Nine thousand died on the Wilhelm Gustloff, over half of them children and almost all of them desperate refugees.

It is a story beautifully and skilfully told through the eyes of four characters – Joana, a young Lithuanian nurse, Florian, A Prussian who worked for but then subsequently fled from the Nazi art theft effort, Emilia, a Polish girl from Lwow, whose parents sent her away from home to live with a German family with whom they thought she would be safe, and Alfred, a young German soldier, conceited, inept and deluded. Joana, Florian and Emilia are part of a small group, which includes an elderly shoemaker nicknamed ‘Poet’, a young boy, Klaus, a young blind girl, Ingrid, and Eva, a bold and forthright German woman. The raggle-taggle group has come together on the road, along with thousands of others, and is making its way to Gotenhafen, fleeing the brutal Russian advance, in the hope of boarding a ship which will take them further west and to what they hope will be relative safety.

It is the end of the war and they all know the Nazi Reich is close to collapsing, but the military remains in charge and committed to the Fuhrer’s cause. The group is also well aware of the fates of others who have fallen into the hands of Russian soldiers, some of them having direct experience of Russian violence. The group is facing multiple threats, not just from the Nazis and the Russians, but also from starvation and sickness. We follow the group as they trek across Prussia, learning about their back-stories, and the relationships between the group’s members evolve.

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“Freedom” – my copy, signed by the author!

Once they reach Gotenhafen, they feel relief and begin to feel safe. Although the town has become a ghetto, with thousands of desperate people trying to escape on a handful of ships, they are hopeful and begin to imagine a future once again. Alfred is one of the sailors on the ship and by the time the group meets him we have learned much about his earlier life. He will become an important character in the events our group is about to face, and his back-story is important to understanding the motivation behind his actions.

For the reader, the tension here is excruciating because although the characters are hopeful and relieved, we know that tragedy will strike the ship. It is just a question of who, if any of them, will survive.

Sometimes, knowledge of the general outcome of a story can have a profound effect on your reading experience. This was very much the case for me here. The tentative joy, so long held-back and so fragile, that the characters experience, contrasted so deeply with the doom and dread that I felt for them.

This is a Young Adult novel and I would suggest that it is appropriate for 14 years and upwards. Even then, some younger teens might find it quite challenging. I would liken it to The Book Thief. The characters are fictional, but the events portrayed in this book are real and we have a duty to acknowledge what happened in the past rather than to airbrush it.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Children’s book review: “Do you speak chocolate?” by Cas Lester

I promised you earlier in the week that I was going to do more on looking at children’s fiction this year. Well, here’s a lovely little book that I really want to tell you about – Do You Speak Chocolate? by Cas Lester. I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did as I’m afraid I didn’t find the cover particularly appealing, but I have to say that, even as a grown-up, I was gripped. I loved the characters, the writing style, the themes and the storyline, so it would be a great one to read along with your kids, so you can chat about it with them.

Do you speak chocolate imgThe central character is Jaz, a 12 year-old girl who is in Year 7 at secondary school. She is dyslexic, doesn’t care too much for school (“Boring!”) and lives with her Mum and three older brothers, their Dad having left shortly after Jaz was born. Jaz is a bit of a rebel with a big heart. She struggles a bit at school, she comes across as someone who finds it difficult to deal with the mainstream demands of sitting still, concentrating, and not least the focus on reading and writing; there does not seem to be much allowance made for her dyslexia. She also struggles a bit with friendship issues, having jealous feelings towards another girl who she feels is going to ‘steal’ her best friend Lily. So we see Jaz is a bit insecure too.

 

Jaz is asked to take care of Nadima, a new girl in school, recently arrived from Syria as a refugee. She does not speak English but the two find common ground over their love of confectionery. They also find innovative ways to communicate, such as using text emojis! Over time, Jaz and Nadima’s relationship develops, but is not without the occasional bump in the road. For example, Jaz gets to know Nadima’s family, and realises what a difficult time they have had, escaping their home country and how little money they now have in the UK. When the school organises a charity fund-raising event, which Jaz and her team win, she stands up in front of the whole school and announces that she thinks the charity money should go to Nadima’s family because they are so poor. Jaz’s intentions are good, but, clearly, she has no idea how embarrassing this is to Nadima and how patronising it seems. Jaz learns quickly and is horrified, but it takes time to rebuild the bridges.

It has a happy ending of course – Jaz and Nadima do make friends again, and they also have a huge success in their drama class at school with an interpretative performance they create, about the situation in Syria. So, even at school, Jaz comes out on top in the end.

Jaz is 12 and in Year 7 so this book will appeal to 10-12 year olds in particular, and although Jaz is a girl, there is something slightly androgynous about her, so I think the book could easily appeal to boys as well. There are plenty of boys in the book (it’s not girly), although some of the friendship issues Jaz has are, in my experience, more common amongst groups of girls than boys. Jaz’s dyslexia is also an important element of her personality and her non-self-pitying discussion about her difficulties is illuminating and sensitively handled.

I love the mix of themes in this book – friendship issues, both the petty jealousies and the bigger fallings-out (subjects which some of us might think of as trivial, but which are really important to kids on a daily basis), are dealt with alongside HUGE issues such as religious and cultural tolerance, the war in Syria and the refugee crisis. The author deals with all these issues without being patronising or preachy and in ways that kids will understand. An achievement indeed.

I’ve passed this on to my 11 year-old to read immediately! Highly recommended.