Two Recent WWII books: The War I Finally Won and Salt to the Sea

May 17, 2019

Not that anyone is looking for more World War II books to read, but if they were, these two are definitely topping my list right now.

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

I loved The War That Saved My Life so much that I immediately put the sequel on hold (and if you know anything about me and my track record with sequels/series, then you'll know what high praise this is). I've heard some readers say they liked this one better than the first one, but if I was forced to choose, I think I'd put my vote with the first one.

That isn't to say there was anything wrong with this one. Just, to me, it seemed like the story kind of stalled out a bit. It still has most of the same characters: Ada, Jamie, Susan, Lady Thornton, and Maggie, with the addition of Ruth (a young Jewish woman who has come to study math with Susan). In many ways, Ada's story has come full circle as demonstrated in this scene where she is riding Maggie's brother's horse, Oben: "I kicked again. I whooped. His speed increased until his stride began to feel as smooth as rushing wind, as effortless as flowing water. I moved with him, effortlessly. On the day I was evacuated, I'd looked out the window of our train and seen a girl galloping a pony, racing the train. Now I was that girl, galloping, laughing, my head thrown back, the wind tugging my hair. I'd become the person I'd longed to be."

But "becoming the person she'd longed to be" came with a price, which was that Ada was gripped with an intense need to control everything and keep anything bad out of her life--a task that is impossible at the best of times, let alone during a war.

She was also confronted with the question of, "If I've already become who I want to be [the girl riding the horse], what comes next?"

It's those two things (Ada's internal anxieties and her hopes for the future) that really drive the plot of this book. But even though big things happened (the Thorntons experienced a tragedy, Susan became very ill, Ada helped warn the village about a bombing), the pacing itself felt slow. To be fair, it wasn't any slower than the first book, but I think the difference was that in the first one, I was getting to know the characters at the same time, but here I already knew the characters really well, so the quiet moments dragged.

That said, I think it's partly the slow pace that makes Ada's growth seem so authentic. Her problems are not solved overnight. She has opportunities where she gets the best of her demons and other times when they get the best of her, but her overall motion is upward and forward. This quote from the end might sum it up best:
"I'd known the right thing to do, and I'd done it. I'd helped take care of Lady Thornton the way she'd helped take care of me. I'd stood in the steeple while bombs and even an airplane had fallen past me out of the sky. I'd felt afraid but I hadn't come undone. My foot would never be all the way right, but I could walk and climb and run. My feelings might never be all the way right either but they were healed enough.
There were many things I liked about this book--it was definitely a worthy and satisfying sequel (and there is even a sweet moment of closure for Susan at the very end). But I guess what I'm trying to say is that it maybe matched the first one a little too well in tone and pacing and drama, so it didn't have quite the same impact on me.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

This book is evidence to my suspicion that no matter how many books are written about World War II, we will never run out of new material for another one. More than anything, I think that attests to the sad reality of how vast and all-encompassing that war really was.

This story centers around four characters: Emilia (a young Polish girl) Florian (a secretive Prussian), Joana (a Lithuanian nurse), and Alfred (a German private). As the war neared its end, thousands of Eastern Europeans fled before the Russians. These four characters boarded the infamous Wilhelm Gustloff for a short voyage across the Baltic Sea.

Infamous, except that I'd never heard of it before hearing about this book. If that's you too, then here are a few facts: the Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed in the Baltic Sea on January 30, 1945. It was carrying over 10,000 people, nearly 9,400 of whom perished in the frigid waters (and an unbelievable 5,000 of those losses were children). To give you some comparison, the Titanic lost 1,600 lives and the Lusitania lost 1,200. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff dwarfed these other tragedies in every way, but for some reason, it has not been given the same amount of attention.

Set against this horrific backdrop, the stories of these four people were fascinating and heartbreaking. I listened to this book, and the audio used four different narrators, which made it easy to differentiate between the characters right from the beginning. As is so often the case with stories told from multiple points of view, this one was rich and multi-layered as I witnessed the same event from different perspectives and pieced together all of the details.

The writing is exquisite. Even simple sentences like this one, "She held her breath in one hand and her suitcase in the other," vividly meshed together the physical and emotional details. I also loved this one, which gave a stark image of the effect of the war: "War had bled color from everything, leaving nothing but a storm of gray."

In the midst of this terrible tragedy, the writing had a way of bringing in little forgotten details that just made my heart twist. For example, as Emilia is traveling through the woods, she often sings a little nursery rhyme from her childhood: "All the little duckies with their heads in the water, heads in the water . . . " Later, as she looks over the water at the destruction all around her, the nursery rhyme, once innocent, comes back unbidden with frightening accuracy, only it is no longer referring to ducks.

Two characters deserve special mention: the shoe poet because I loved him so much and Alfred because he was so unbelievably awful.

The shoe poet, as everyone referred to him, might have been my very favorite. He was a man without guile who had a keen sense of observation and shared his wisdom through shoe metaphors (hence, the nickname). He was especially kind to the wandering boy, a young child who had come unmoored from his family. I loved their trusting and loving relationship in the midst of so much despair.

Then there was Alfred who was an egotistic narcissist but also a bumbling idiot (depending on the point of view at the time). I loved the other three main characters so much and felt a connection with each one. But even in his pathetic wretchedness, I couldn't drum up even the least bit of sympathy for Alfred. I had to wonder if this was what the author intended or if I was at least supposed to feel somewhat sorry for Alfred or if she purposely created an unlikeable character because she knew we would need someone to hate.

I'm always on the lookout for the title of the book to be embedded in the story somewhere. It usually sheds some light as to why the author chose it for the title and makes it more poignant. In this case, the title came from Joana as she drifted in the middle of the sea: "I wanted my mother. My mother loved Lithuania. She loved her family. The war had torn every last love from her life. Would she have to learn the grotesque details of our suffering? Would news make it to my hometown . . . ,  to the dark bunker in the woods where my father and brother were thought to be hiding? Joana Vilcus. Your daughter. Your sister. She is salt to the sea."

I'm grateful that I have yet another book to add to my list of worthwhile and appropriate young adult novels. Because even though the subject matter is dark and heavy, the actual content was quite clean and sensitive. I'll leave you with this final bit of wisdom from Emilia, which highlights the resiliency of the human spirit and that even in the darkest moments, we can find the good: "Nature. That was something the war couldn't take from me either. The Nazis couldn't stop the wind and the snow. The Russians couldn't take the sun or the stars."

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