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A weekly look at creativity, arts, and culture in southwest Michigan, hosted by Zinta Aistars.Fridays in Morning Edition at 7:50am and at 4:20pm during All Things Considered.

Art Beat: Another night to remember

Author Ruta Sepetys
Rachel Kinney Studios
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Ruta Sepetys
Author Ruta Sepetys

Everyone knows about the Titanic and the tragedy of so many lost lives. But how many know about the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German ship torpedoed by a Russian submarine during World War II, drowning some 9,000 people in the Baltic Sea? Ruta Sepetys, an internationally bestselling Lithuanian American author, focused on the tragic story of the Gustloff in her historical novel, Salt of the Sea. It is the 2024 CommuniTeen community reading event in collaboration with the Portage Public Schools, the Portage District Library, and this is a bookstore in Kalamazoo.

A conversation with Ruta Sepetys

“My father fled Lithuania when he was just four years old,” Sepetys says. “He spent nine years in various ‘Displaced Persons’ camps. It’s the experience of many Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians. But after I wrote my first book—Between Shades of Gray—my father’s cousin came to me. She said, ‘Ruta, I know you love underrepresented history,’ and she shared a story about the evacuation of East Prussia and specifically a ship that sank, the Wilhelm Gustloff.”

Front cover of Salt to the Sea
Philomel Books
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Ruta Sepetys
Front cover of Salt to the Sea

Sepetys was fascinated with the story and decided to research it further. The story is set in 1945, during World War II, as refugees flee the Baltic States, Poland, and Prussia, caught between the Soviet invasion on one side and Hitler’s Nazi forces on the other. Written in four narrative voices—Florian, Joana, Emilia, and Alfred—the storyline follows their experiences as they make their way to the ship, crowding onto it along with thousands of others, and then the tragic sinking of the ship, taking 9,000 lives down into the dark and cold Baltic Sea.

“This was shocking to me,” Sepetys says. “Like most people, I had assumed that the Titanic was the single greatest maritime disaster. Not even close. The Gustloff, with a normal capacity of 1,400, was carrying over 10,000 people when it was torpedoed.”

Sepetys will come to Portage to participate in 2024 CommuniTeen events. She will give a presentation and lead discussion of her book, Salt to the Sea, to culminate this planned community read. The event will take place on Tuesday, March 19, 2024, at 6:30 p.m. at the Zhang Senior Center in Portage. All are invited to this free and open event but advance registration is required.

During the 2023/2024 school year, teens throughout Portage were invited to read and discuss Salt to the Sea. The community was invited to read it along with them in anticipation of Sepetys’ appearance.

Salt of the Sea is a New York Times and international bestseller and winner of the Carnegie Medal. Sepetys has won or been shortlisted for more than 40 book prizes for her seven novels. She has been invited to present at NATO conferences, the European Parliament, at the U.S. Capitol, the Library of Congress, and at embassies worldwide. Sepetys was awarded the Rockefeller Foundation’s prestigious Bellagio Fellowship for her studies on human resilience. Her first novel, which chronicles Soviet atrocities in Lithuania, has been adapted into the major motion picture, Ashes in the Snow.

Listen to WMUK's Art Beat every Friday at 7:50 a.m. and 4:20 p.m.

Zinta Aistars is our resident book expert. She started interviewing authors and artists for our Arts & More program in 2011.
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