Salt to the Sea

Buy SALT TO THE SEA by Ruta Sepetys

I approached this young adult novel with wary curiosity more than anything. I wrote about the true story behind the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in January 1945 in my book, Final Voyages: The world’s worst maritime disasters, so I knew who most of the 9–10,000 victims were – the beneficiaries of lebensraum, German citizens who moved eastward after the Third Reich cleansed swathes of Poland of her own people.

How do you write a novel that demands your sympathies for character who are only refugees now because of their own legacy of turning much of a continent into refugees (or worse) half a decade before?

Of course, there’s a reason why Ruta Sepetys won the Carnegie, the Booker Prize for children’s literature, with this novel, which is her answer to that question, and which deserves much of the prestige with which it has been lavished in the past couple of years.

For most of the characters in the opening chapters, the war is already over, even if the killing hasn’t stopped and peace is still months from being declared. A disparate group of people end up sheltering in the same barn overnight on their way through occupied Poland, heading towards the coast, where the greatest sea-based evacuation in history awaits them. Some of them won’t make it. And all of them have secrets. Soon three young people become bound by what they know about each other – secrets that may give them power, or be their greatest weakness.

For those who make it to the harbour, there’s an agonising wait to be boarded, but of all the ships docked, the lavish former liner the Wilhelm Gustloff is the one everyone wants to get on. And over 10,000 of them are squeezed aboard. But a Soviet submarine lurks in the freezing waters of the Baltic. Relative safety in Germany is only a 48-hour voyage away, but the promise is a lie.

I first learnt of the Wilhelm Gustloff from The Tin Drum author Gunter Grass’s more recent novel, Crabwalk. In that he notes how the disaster’s place in history has moved sideways since 1945. It started as just another tragedy in the bloodiest months of the Second World War, either suppressed or ignored. After the war it became something unworthy of being mourned in a newly shamed Germany who had no right to feel a sense of suffering. More recently, however, it has become a totem for the Far Right – a little-known massacre of mainly civilians written out of history by the victorious perpetrators, but which proves Germans were victims all along.

Sepetys does somewhat try a little too hard to establish that most of her main characters are not typical German occupiers or their offspring, but ordinary people who have been caught up in the turmoil of events. We can feel sympathy for them because they didn’t build their homes over the bones of the Poles.

What’s more she spends a bit too long establishing just how vile the Red Army was behaving as it forced the Reich back towards Germany’s old borders. The net result is that the Soviets seem like the true monsters even before they torpedo the Wilhelm Gustloff, whereas the crimes of the Nazis are somewhat downplayed, and the only main character who remains loyal to Hitler until the end is a naïve buffoon. I wonder what Gunter Grass would make of this treatment of the disaster, which does somewhat pivot on us being kept from knowing which of the anonymous victims are like our heroes, and which remain devoted to Hitler too.

Of course it’s not a novel about goodies and baddies, because every character here lives in the grey area left behind after they have been overrun by history. As Oliver Stone would have it in Platoon, the first casualty of war is innocence, and almost six years after this war began, by the time the Wilhelm Gustloff was sunk, were there really any innocents left?

Final Voyage: The Audiobook

Yesterday I downloaded my complimentary author’s copy of the new Audible audiobook of Final Voyage: The World’s Worst Maritime Disasters, which was a surprisingly exciting experience. My previous book, How to Snog a Hagfish!: Disgusting Things in the Sea, was recorded by the charity Listening Books, but is only available to their members. The audiobook of Final Voyage, however, is available commercially from Amazon or Audible’s own website. Indeed, you can buy it here.

Matthew Waterson has done a good job of narrating the text; his voice has precisely the right amount of gravitas. It’s always interesting (and a bit weird) to listen to your words read aloud by someone else, especially if you’ve only heard them in your own voice (or what you think is your own voice) inside your own head. All of a sudden you get a little bit more distance from the writing, and what looks straightforward when written down suddenly starts to sound like it could have done with losing a subordinate clause to the next sentence!

The truth is, though, I’m not really an audiobook kind of person. I remember being a member of Tape Club (don’t worry, I am allowed to talk about it) in primary school, and always searching out the next story about Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat. But as soon as I was able to read the kinds of stories I wanted to read, rather than just listen to them being read, I moved on. Of course, I used to say I wasn’t an ebook kind of person either, and now the longest novel I have ever read I read on the iPad. Similarly, I was a devotee of the CD, until last year, when I only got a couple and spent far more on iTunes.

So maybe after I’ve finished listening to mine, I might be ready to listen to someone else’s audiobook. Though it’s unabridged, so there’s 5 hours and 48 minutes to listen to first.

Anyway, you can listen to a 3 minute sample on the Audible website by clicking ‘Sample’ under the cover.

Final Voyage

Yesterday I finished my third book, which was called Worse than Titanic when I started, but along the way became Final Voyage. Despite being more than twice the length of my previous two books (47,338 words against about 23,000) I found this the most straightforward to write, perhaps because writing narrative is more of a natural fit for me than writing explanatory text.

This does mean that three books in I still haven’t come up with a title of my own (this
is the only book I’ve named – got rewarded with a chocolate bar for it). I’m happy with the new title. It’s less sensationalist than the previous one, something I became concerned about when an alternative title being considered for the book was So You Thought the Titanic was Bad! (complete with exclamation mark). It made me wonder whether those on the coalface of bookselling really care about the contents of a book, and whether the title matches that, so long as a buyer’s attention is grabbed.

In fact, the only time I struggled with this book is when I thought it might end up getting published under that title. It’s not academic history, but it’s not trivia either. Most of the chapters push 5,000 words. That title would only grab the attention of someone to whom the contents would not appeal, whilst at the same title warding off my target readership, who are looking for popular history, not some glib ‘trump card’-style read pitting various maritime disasters against each other and seeing which comes out worst. Worse than Titanic had to go for the same reason.

Of course, the new title isn’t entirely accurate. One of the ships featured in the book (the Thielbek) sank a few hours before the end of the Second World War carrying 2,800 concentration camp inmates, only 50 of whom survived. Four years later she was raised, repaired and put back into service.

The sinking of the Titanic

Judging from some TV critics’ columns this weekend (at the start of the third or fourth week of profligate coverage), it’s now okay to say the observation of the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic has turned into a ghoulish spectacle that has more to do with a movie than the actual victims. For me the centenary comes in the middle of writing Worse than Titanic, a book about the worst maritime disasters in history. The Titanic only features in the title.

In terms of loss of life alone, the sinking of the Titanic doesn’t even figure as one of the fifty worst maritime disasters of the last three hundred years. Even putting aside a cold comparison of death tolls, some of the circumstances in which the other vessels sank – and some of the experiences of those who died on or survived them – were horrific almost to the point of being unimaginable. They make disaster movies look sanitised, and that includes even the more accurate versions of the Titanic story.

The Titanic wasn’t hopelessly overcrowded with over 10,000 people, unlike the Wilhelm Gustloff. The Titanic didn’t lose all power and wasn’t plunged into total darkness when she began to sink, making escape impossible for anybody below decks, unlike Le Joola. The Titanic wasn’t consumed by a swiftly spreading inferno, unlike the Dona Paz. Those fleeing the Titanic weren’t shot at, unlike those fleeing the Thielbek and Cap Arcona. The Titanic didn’t capsize before she went down, unlike the Lancastria. And the Titanic took almost three hours to sink, unlike most of the ships in the book.

It’s a popular misconception that the Titanic disaster had a great impact on maritime safety. The first Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention in 1914 was a direct response to the disaster, and there have been several others since, in 1929, 1948, 1960 and 1974. Since 1929 the emphasis has been on fire prevention, because fire was responsible for half of all peacetime casualties at sea. But only a few years ago there were still cruise ships in active service that only adhered to the 1948 convention. And most of the disasters in the book have happened since the first convention.

The Titanic disaster continues to hold sway over the public imagination, being the archetypal maritime disaster, possibly because it’s become a symbol of a dying age, the point at which our belief in our invincibility thanks to technology was soon to be extinguished on the battlefields of Europe. Many of the films made about the Titanic use the decks of the ship to represent a microcosm of a society riven by class. Poor emigrants seeking a better life in America were aboard the same ship as Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim, some of the richest, most notable men in the Western world.

It’s hard to imagine Le Joola, the most recent disaster featured in my book, making so few headlines in the West had there been a few British aristocrats or rich American industrialists on board. Yet 2,000 died when Le Joola capsized off the Senegal in 2002, and the disaster is, only a decade later, unknown even to those who consider the loss of the Titanic a great tragedy. The Titanic has been remembered, commemorated and celebrated for a century now. My book is about the people who sailed on other ships that met with disaster, whether they lived or died, but who have been almost completely forgotten.