When I was in high school I was enrolled in an Advanced Placement History course. Our teacher decided that the best way to drill all of the historical events, names and dates into our brains was to type all of that information into hundreds of pages of single-spaced notes, make photocopies, and hand each of us our own 3″ tall stack of three-hole punched history. I stuck it all in a massive binder and memorized (barely) what I needed to for her exams, but I couldn’t retain any of the information long-term and by the end of the course I was just glad to be done with it.
Sadly, I left high school feeling like I knew very little about history. Perhaps that has something to do with why since then, I’ve found that I’m really drawn to historical fiction. When I read a novel that involves some real, historical person or event, it all becomes more real to me and I actually learn a little bit of history while enjoying a good story at the same time. Give me a bunch of straight facts and my eyes glaze over and my brain shuts down, but give me history as a story, descriptions and dialogue and I’ll absorb all of it.
So I started reading Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys last week knowing nothing about the book. I had only heard from fellow readers that they enjoyed it a lot and that was reason enough to check it out. Once I started reading, I was glued to the book and could have easily read the entire thing in one sitting. It takes place during WWII when four youths of different ethnicities – a Pole, a German, a Prussian and a Lithuanian – make their way to a big German ship called the Wilhelm Gustloff that is to evacuate them from the advancing Russian forces. I really like how Sepetys wrote this book from the perspective of the four youths in alternating narratives. It all flowed together so nicely and it held my interest from beginning to end.
I was shocked that I had never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff ship or of the tragedy that happened, but now that I’ve read this story I will never forget it. A little more historical knowledge added to that little brain up there in my head. This book is actually a Young Adult novel and if you are looking for a great book club pick, this would be an excellent choice. Not only is there a lot to discuss, but it’s a fairly quick read.