Audience: Young Adult
Guilt is a hunter.
– First sentence
This is more than just a story about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, although that is the historical event that inspired it. The book follows the journey of a group of refugees trying to escape war and find freedom. They have a long and arduous journey ahead of them, but if they can make it to the ship (and get aboard), they will have a chance to survive.
We follow the journey from the point of view of four teens: three refugees (each with their own secrets) and a sociopathic soldier with an inflated sense of his own importance. The point of view changes with each section and the effect can be disconcerting. Even though the change of narrator was tough to follow, I did like knowing what the characters were thinking and seeing the different ways they reacted to the same situation.
I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but when I do, it tends to be from the WWII era. I did enjoy the book and felt it was extremely realistic. Sepetys doesn’t shy away from horrific events or from showing the reactions of the characters. By the time the ship started sinking, I was totally rooting for the good characters to live and the bad ones to die, and on the edge of my seat. And of course, the end was heartbreaking even though parts of it were good.
This is a historical horror/thriller story revolving around Robert Louis Stevenson, the story of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and Jack the Ripper. It alternates between 1880’s London and “present day” California. My favorite parts were in the 1880’s where Stevenson creates the story of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and deals with the consequences. The present-day story revolves around Rafe, an environmental scientist who is working to save the coyotes and stumbles across a mysterious steamer trunk.
The part with Stevenson is intriguing and suspenseful and was hard to put down. But, the present day part with Rafe is a bit tedious and took a while to get going. I kept trying to figure out how it connected with the Stevenson story but was more interested in getting back to the 1880’s. The narration is well done even though the accent irritated me a bit.
This is a brilliant premise for a story but lacks a bit in the execution. Overall I enjoyed it and recommend it to fans of history and horror (as combining the two is a bit unusual).
In the end it was the combination of the two, the end of my little war against Jamie, and the start of the big war, Hitler’s war, that set me free.
– Chapter 1
She was not a nice person, but she cleaned up the floor. She was not a nice person, but she bandaged my foot in a white piece of cloth, and gave us two of her own shirts to wear. Miss Smith was not a nice person, but the bed she put us in was soft and clean, with smooth thin blankets and warm thicker ones.
– Chapter 7
Huh, I thought. Imagine dressing up tables. Imagine wasting cloth to dress up tables.
– Chapter 18
I wanted Mam to be like Susan. I didn’t really trust Susan not to be like Mam.
– Chapter 26
Ada was born with a club foot, and because of this, her mom doesn’t let her leave the house. But that isn’t the worst of it. Ada’s mom (Mam) punishes her by putting her in a kitchen cabinet — sometimes overnight. Mam calls Ada rubbish and tells her no one wants her with her ugly foot. Ada “escapes” this abuse by going somewhere else in her head.
When Ada finds out her younger brother Jamie is to be evacuated with the other kids from his school, she is determined to go with them. The journey takes them to a small village where families have agreed to take in the evacuated children. Ada and Jamie end up living with Susan Smith, an old, grumpy spinster who doesn’t really want them.
Ada is a heart-wrenching character. She has been taking care of her brother all his life, but no one takes care of her. She has suffered unimaginable abuse from the woman who should love her the most. She doesn’t know how to accept love and kindness, and she doesn’t even think she deserves it. Her mother has told her that her foot is messed up because Ada did something wrong.
Susan has her own issues. She recently lost her best friend and suffers from severe depression. Having Ada and Jamie around gives her something else to think about and an important responsibility – a reason to get up every day and engage with others.
Wow. This book is powerful. It is set in England during World War II. I loved watching Ada’s development and bonding with Susan and others in the village. Despite everything Ada has been through (or maybe because of it), she is stubborn and courageous. She is also slow to trust and filled with self-doubt. The last chapter had me in tears.
I recommend this book to kids in grades 4-8 and their adults. I think it will touch their hearts in a major way.