Because of the snowstorm, I’ve been catching up on some of my ARCs, and I ended up reading two historical novels back to back, both of which were so wonderful, I really hope all of you will give them a chance: SALT TO THE SEA by Ruta Sepetys and OUTRUN THE MOON by Stacey Lee. Both are set in first half of the 20th century and follow teens/young adults, but that’s about all they have in common. While SALT TO THE SEA is a WWII with four alternation POVs against the backstory of a maritime disaster far greater than the Titanic or the Lusitania, OUTRUN THE MOON is a highly personal narrative about one girl’s quest out of Chinatown poverty in the months leading up to the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.
I think historical fiction tends be a genre that either makes you go “Yes, please!” or “No, thank you.” Readers either tend to be extremely passionate about it or just don’t bother with it all. With her third entry in the genre, Sepetys has cemented herself as one of the master novelists for young readers. SALT TO THE SEA can’t be compared with a frothy romance or a sci-fi adventure. We’ve all heard of the lucky authors who whip up their first drafts in a month and BAM! it’s ready for an editor. Sepetys spent years researching the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff — interviewing survivors and their children, reading their memoirs, and of course, doing her own reading of scholarly accounts about the World War and why so many Baltic Germans and other refugees were fleeing back to Germany, because they feared the advancing Red Army even more than they feared the Nazis. It was an impossible situation, and three of the four teens — Joana, Emilia, and Florian aka “The Prussian” — are just trying to get on a ship, whereas the fourth, Alfred, is a late draftee into the German Army, a true if obviously misguided believer in the Fuhrer’s plan for a great German Empire. It’s the kind of book that will appeal to adults who don’t normally read YA, because it’s just that good. Not only is the writing fabulous, but the historical aspects are meticulously detailed, and the characters so compelling you ache for them as they try their hardest to survive one of the greatest and least known disasters in WWII history.
OUTRUN THE MOON is Lee’s second historical novel. She admits in her author’s notes that what her characters accomplish is a bit improbable (there is no recorded evidence of a Chinese girl attending an all-white boarding school in San Francisco, although Lee drew inspiration from the fact that Madame Chiang Kai-shek and her sister were allowed to attend an elite prep school in Summit, New Jersey, but of course their father had considerable means), but it’s rooted in things that actually happened (the Earthquake, the temporary tent city where people congregated and ate together however briefly, regardless of class and race). Mercy’s story is unique in that it’s a rare example of intersectional diversity. She’s poor, a girl, and of course a minority. Being a Chinese girl in San Francisco at that time was to be assumed “gutter trash” without any prospects outside the confines of Chinatown.
Both of these books teach you SO MUCH about their time periods, about what adolescents went through from that particular time and place (and catastrophe), and about how far (and in some ways, how little) we’ve come. I highly recommend both books and hope you’ll add them to your TBR lists immediately.
SALT TO THE SEA by Ruta Sepetys
Feb. 2, 2016| Philomel, 400 pages | Pre-order it
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.
Told in alternating points of view, and perfect for fans of Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See, Erik Larson’s critically acclaimed #1 NYT bestseller Dead Wake, and Elizabeth Wein’s Printz Honor Book Code Name Verity, this masterful work of historical fiction is inspired by the real-life tragedy that was the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff–the greatest maritime disaster in history. As she did in Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys unearths a shockingly little-known casualty of a gruesome war, and proves that humanity can prevail, even in the darkest of hours.
OUTRUN THE MOON by Stacey Lee
May 24, 2016| G.P. Putnam’s, 400 pages | Pre-order it
San Francisco, 1906: Fifteen-year-old Mercy Wong is determined to break from the poverty in Chinatown, and an education at St. Clare’s School for Girls is her best hope. Although St. Clare’s is off-limits to all but the wealthiest white girls, Mercy gains admittance through a mix of cunning and a little bribery, only to discover that getting in was the easiest part. Not to be undone by a bunch of spoiled heiresses, Mercy stands strong—until disaster strikes.
On April 18, an historic earthquake rocks San Francisco, destroying Mercy’s home and school. With martial law in effect, she is forced to wait with her classmates for their families in a temporary park encampment. Mercy can’t sit by while they wait for the Army to bring help. Fires might rage, and the city may be in shambles, yet Mercy still has the ‘bossy’ cheeks that mark her as someone who gets things done. But what can one teenaged girl do to heal so many suffering in her broken city?
Breakout author Stacey Lee masterfully crafts another remarkable novel set against a unique historical backdrop. Strong-willed Mercy Wong leads a cast of diverse characters in this extraordinary tale of survival.