I couldn’t believe how shocked I was when I read Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray. I mean, I had taken a world history class with “in depth” unit about WWII and didn’t really know much of anything about what Stalin had done — nor had I even heard of the [Soviet] Holodomor (roughly translated to “death by hunger”) that rivaled the well-known [German] Holocaust. After reading Between Shades of Gray, though, I felt like I had a much better grasp of WWII history… And then I read this book. How is it that there is yet another major piece of WWII history that has flown under the radar for so long?!?
Before reading Salt to the Sea, I had never even heard of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. I was stupefied to learn that OVER NINE THOUSAND people died in this tragedy. Prior to reading this book, I would have been willing to bet that the Titanic and the Lusitania were the two largest maritime tragedies of all time. Even when you combine the death tolls of those two ships, nevertheless, they only account for about a third of the losses of the Gustloff. I wish American ethnocentrism didn’t extend to history classrooms in which *world* history is being taught, but it seems pretty evident to me that the anti-Germany sentiment surrounding WWII and the lack of American passengers aboard the ship have both contributed to a lack of American attention. People from all walks of life [civilians, refugees, and soldiers] and of all ages [from babies to senior citizens] were aboard that ship. It was a tragedy of unbelievable proportions.
Thank goodness Ruta Sepetys! With her well-developed characters and gripping plots, Sepetys is providing readers with compelling stories that will also spread awareness of these previously unknown tragedies. Who knows? Maybe her books will even lead to better coverage in future history textbooks and classes. I can only hope that the multiple points of view provided by this particular story will resonate with readers and finally bring much-deserved American attention to the great number of lives that were lost in the Baltic Sea [almost exactly] 71 years ago.