Welcome to the first discussion of the Relaxed & Groovy Book Club of this year! We’ll have one each quarter and instead of revisiting a favorite read from the past, I’ll be reading a book for the first time right along with you.
This first book is from an author with the most generous spirit and all the talent to make a reader lose themselves in any world she creates. I’ve been a huge fan ever since I read her debut novel BETWEEN SHADES OF GREY. I was lucky enough to hear her speak in person about her experience researching and then writing this story. It was gut-wrenching. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. She put all of that into her story, and let me tell you. It’s a book well worth reading.
So is her latest book. I won an advanced copy on Goodreads, which was awesome – free books, yay! (If you had my book habit you’d totally understand.) Even so, I would’ve bought this book myself if I hadn’t won it.
Current Relaxed & Groovy Book Club selection:
SALT TO THE SEA by Ruta Sepetys
Published by: Philomel
Release Date: February 2, 2016
Genres: YA, Historical Fiction
In 1945, World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, almost all of them with something to hide. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer toward safety. Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.
A tribute to the people of Lithuania, Poland, and East Prussia, Ruta Sepetys unearths a shockingly little-known casualty of a gruesome war, and proves that humanity can prevail, even in the darkest of hours. (Plot summary from author’s website.)
Learn more about Ruta Sepetys here.
Follow Ruta on Twitter here.
Follow Ruta on Facebook here.
This is such a fascinating tale that grips you right from the opening pages. Sepetys has a way of finding different angles to shed light on familiar periods of history in enlightening and intriguing ways.
Here’s a look at the first chapter:
Guilt is a hunter.
My conscience mocked me, picking fights like a petulant
It’s all your fault, the voice whispered.
I quickened my pace and caught up with our small group. The Germans would march us off the field road if they found us. Roads were reserved for the military. Evacuation orders hadn’t been issued and anyone fleeing East Prussia was branded a deserter. But what did that matter? I became a deserter four years ago, when I fled from Lithuania.
I had left in 1941. What was happening at home? Were the dreadful things whispered in the streets true?
We approached a mound on the side of the road. The small boy in front of me whimpered and pointed. He had joined us two days prior, just wandered out of the forest alone and quietly began following us.
“Hello, little one. How old are you?” I had asked.
“Six,” he replied.
“Who are you traveling with?”
He paused and dropped his head. “My Omi.”
I turned toward the woods to see if his grandmother had emerged. “Where is your Omi now?” I asked.
The wandering boy looked up at me, his pale eyes wide. “She didn’t wake up.”
So the little boy traveled with us, often drifting just slightly ahead or behind. And now he stood, pointing to a flap of dark wool beneath a meringue of snow.
I waved the group onward and when everyone advanced I ran to the snow-covered heap. The wind lifted a layer of icy flakes revealing the dead blue face of a woman, probably in her twenties. Her mouth and eyes were hinged open, fixed in fear. I dug through her iced pockets, but they had already been picked. In the lining of her jacket I found her identification papers. I stuffed them in my coat to pass on to the Red Cross and dragged her body off the road and into the field. She was dead, frozen solid, but the thought of tanks rolling over her was more than I could bear.
I ran back to the road and our group. The wandering boy stood in the center of the path, snow falling all around him.
“She didn’t wake up either?” he asked quietly.
I shook my head and took his mittened hand in mine.
And then we both heard it in the distance.
Don’t you just love the imagery of “a flap of dark wool beneath a meringue of snow”? There are so many different ways she describes the winter weather, you feel it as you’re walking through the scene with the characters.
With this well-crafted story which not only creates vivid scenes that immerse you right into the bitter cold of Eastern Prussia in 1945, but shows you this world through the lives of four fascinating and complex characters, we not only get caught up in their struggles, but in the mystery that slowly draws them all together.
The book is told from four points of view, each character with a different reason for fleeing from something. Three of them are crossing the open, dodging the Germans from one direction and the Soviets from another, trying to find safe passage out of the country on a ship, one doomed for tragedy. One is already on the ship, trying to avoid doing much of anything – hiding in plain sight.
Here’s the scene when the three crossing all come together for the first time:
Others had beaten us there. A teetering collection of weathered horse carts was tucked beyond the brush, a sober portrait of the trek toward freedom. I would have preferred an abandoned site, but knew I couldn’t continue. The Polish girl pulled at my sleeve.
She stopped in the snow, staring at the possessions outside the barn, evaluating the contents and whom they might belong to. There was no evidence of military.
“I think okay,” she said. We walked inside.
A group of fifteen or twenty people sat huddled around a small fire. Their faces turned as I slipped in and stood near the door. Mothers, children, and elderly. All exhausted and broken. The Polish girl went straight to a vacant corner and sat down, wrapping her arms tightly around her chest. A young woman walked over to me.
“Are you injured? I have medical training.”
Her German was fluent, but not native. I didn’t answer. I didn’t need to speak to anyone.
“Do you have any food to share?” she asked.
What I had was no one’s business.
“Does she have any food?” she asked, pointing to the Polish girl rocking in the corner. “Her eyes look a bit wild.”
I spoke without looking at her. “She was in the forest. A Russian cornered her. She followed me here. She has a couple of potatoes. Now, leave me alone,” I said.
The young woman winced at the mention of the Russian. She left my side and headed quickly toward the girl.
I found a solitary spot away from the group and sat down. I lodged my pack against the barn wall and carefully reclined on it. It would be warmer if I sat near the fire with the others but I couldn’t risk it. No conversations.
I ate a small piece of the sausage from the dead Russian and watched the young woman as she tried to speak with the girl from the forest. Others called out to her for help. She must have been a nurse. She looked a few years older than me. Pretty. Naturally pretty, the type that’s still attractive, even more so, when she’s filthy. Everyone in the barn was filthy. The stench of exertion, failed bladders, and most of all fear, stunk worse than any livestock. The nurse girl would have turned my head back in Königsberg.
I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to look at the pretty girl. I needed to be able to kill her, kill them all, if I had to. My body begged for sleep but my mind warned me not to trust these people. I felt a nudge at my feet and opened my eyes.
“You didn’t mention she was Polish,” said the nurse. “And the Russian?” she asked.
“He’s taken care of,” I told her. “I need to sleep.”
She knelt down beside me. I could barely hear her.
“What you need is to show me that wound you’re trying to hide.”
Once they all come together on the ill-fated ship, you know their troubles are far from over. Intense and fast-paced, Septeys keeps you turning the pages to the end to find out what each of these characters is hiding and how they will survive, if they will survive. I loved the unique take on such an important period of history, brought to life in a brilliant way. I hope you enjoyed reading it, too.
Next Relaxed & Groovy Book Club selection:
THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH by Martha Brockenbrough
Published by: Scholastic
Release Date: April 28, 2015
Genres: YA, Contemporary, Realistic Fiction
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA. HELEN OF TROY AND PARIS. ROMEO AND JULIET. AND NOW . . . HENRY AND FLORA.
For centuries Love and Death have chosen their players. They have set the rules, rolled the dice, and kept close, ready to influence, angling for supremacy. And Death has always won. Always.
Could there ever be one time, one place, one pair whose love would truly tip the balance?
Meet Flora Saudade, an African-American girl who dreams of becoming the next Amelia Earhart by day and sings in the smoky jazz clubs of Seattle by night. Meet Henry Bishop, born a few blocks and a million worlds away, a white boy with his future assured — a wealthy adoptive family in the midst of the Great Depression, a college scholarship, and all the opportunities in the world seemingly available to him.
The players have been chosen. The dice have been rolled. But when human beings make moves of their own, what happens next is anyone’s guess.
Achingly romantic and brilliantly imagined, The Game of Love and Death is a love story you will never forget. (Plot summary from author’s website.)
Learn more about Martha Brockenbrough here.
Follow Martha on Twitter here.
Follow Martha on Facebook here.
Follow Martha on Tumblr here.
I met the beguiling Ms. Brockenbrough at the SCBWI LA conference last summer and have been looking forward to reading this book ever since. I can’t wait to discuss it with you all next time!
We’ll reconvene this most relaxed and groovy of book clubs in early summer. (Tie-dyed tees and funky shoes optional, as always!)