In my Writing 4 Children double spread, in the March issue of Writers’ Forum, I interview Ruta Sepetys about how she is bringing underrepresented pieces of history out of the dark in her award winning YA novels.
For example, her novel Salt to the Sea, which won the 2017 CILIP Carnegie Medal, is set during the 1945 refugee evacuation of East Prussia and tells the story of the single largest maritime disaster in history—the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in port during WWII. The story is told through the alternating viewpoints of four young people who are all hunted and haunted by tragedy, lies, and war. Their fates converge as they arrive at the port and board the doomed ship.
Ruta explained how she was inspired to use the true story of her father’s cousin who had passage on the Wilhelm Gustloff but on the day of the voyage she was unable to board the ship. When the ship departed without her, she was certain that she would die in the port under Soviet attack. She survived, but over nine thousand passengers on the Gustloff perished.
“My cousin’s experience made such an impression on me. It issues the reminder that sometimes it’s not where we are—but where we aren’t—that makes a difference. I was also inspired to write about the maritime disaster because although the magnitude dwarfs the sinking of the Titanic, the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff is virtually unknown.” Ruta Sepetys
Her use of family history was also true of the first novel she had published by Puffin, Between Shades of Gray, which won the 2012 Golden Kite Award for fiction and was made into the movie, Ashes in the Snow. This novel chronicles the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States and the exile and deportation of countless victims to Siberia. The story follows Lina Vilkas, a fifteen-year-old artist who is arrested by the Soviet secret police and deported to Siberia with her mother and younger brother.
The story was inspired by two young women who were deported and also by Ruta’s father who fled Lithuania when he was a boy and spent nine years in refugee camps before arriving in the United States.
Ruta told me:
“I try to inject an equal balance of love and hope. When love is juxtaposed against violence, the two opposing forces reveal powerful truths about the other.” Ruta Sepetys
Her latest novel, The Fountains of Silence, is set in Madrid in 1957 during the Spanish Civil War.
It tells the story of eighteen-year-old Daniel Matheson, the son of a Texas oil tycoon, who arrives in Madrid with his parents hoping to connect with the country of his mother’s birth through the lens of his camera only to be plunged into one of history’s darkest corners.
You can read my full interview with Ruta Sepetys in the March 2019 #209 issue of Writers’ Forum.