The Perspective of Others: Salt to the Sea

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This post is part of “DigiLit Sunday,” hosted by Margaret Simon at Reflections on the Teche. This week’s topic is PERSPECTIVE.

“Sympathy as a desirable quality is something more than mere feeling;
it is the cultivated imagination for what men have in common and a rebellion at whatever unnecessarily divides them.”
~ Thomas Dewey ~

It’s often said that history is written by the victors. This implies, of course, that only one side of a story gets told. What happens to the stories of the vanquished? Isn’t their perspective of events just as valuable? What truths are hidden within the stories that don’t get told?

In Salt to the Sea (Philomel Books, 2016), Ruta Sepetys tells the “hidden history” of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff  by a Soviet submarine in January of 1945. An estimated 9,000 people lost their lives in the icy waters of the Baltic Sea as a result. By giving voice to four teens fleeing East Prussia at the end of World War II, Sepetys masterfully weaves the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff together with their stories.

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Three of the four narrators, Joana, Florian, and Emelia, tells the story their journey toward safety from their perspective. The fourth narrator, Alfred, is a German sailor aboard theWilhelm Gustloff.  Each chapter reveals a bit of the character’s history. But the bigger picture also begins to come into focus. The brutality of the Soviet Army as it advanced toward Germany. The selfishness of the Nazi leadership and their pernicious xenophobia. The sacrifices ordinary people from every country made for those they loved.

The tapestry that emerges gives readers a much deeper understanding of the events than any one of the narrators would have created individually. It also builds our sympathy for each of the narrators and their traveling companions.  As we get to know them, we realize that each of them carries a secret that haunts them. Just like every other human on the planet.

On this Memorial Day weekend, let’s resolve to find and share these untold stories with our students. It seems to me that the political hyperbole in the U.S. today makes it even more urgent that stories like Salt to the Sea be shared. These are stories that will broaden our perspective, and help us develop the imagination needed to see something of ourselves in the stories of others.

Listen to Ruta Sepetys discuss Salt to the Sea on NPR’s Morning Edition here.

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