“We need fiction to stretch our world.” ~Susan Sontag
If you want to learn something new—about yourself, the people around you, the world—there are plenty of nonfiction resources. Very bright people dedicate their lives to conducting research or sharing their personal experiences in the hopes of enlightening the rest of us.
Still, I find my eyes are opened widest through fiction. I’ve felt the dust in my throat as it swept across the Great Plains, realized what it means to be unjustly accused, been an Outsider, discovered how to work a lighthouse, and much more. In fact, I usually learn more and in a way that resonates with me longer through fiction than nonfiction. Nonfiction often has an agenda. The author has a thesis and is trying to convince me of X. With fiction, I let my guard down. No one is getting preachy (not in good fiction, anyway) or trying to persuade me. The author is presenting the details as they unfold, and I take what I want from it. Fiction immerses me in the lives, occupations, and eras of the people who lived them. These people may exist only in my imagination, but they are representatives for thousands who may not have had a voice.
And so it was with Salt to the Sea, a wonderful new novel by Ruta Sepetys. Near the end of WWII, there was a maritime disaster so terrible, it dwarfed the losses of the Titanic and the Lusitania combined. When the Wilhelm Gustloff sank to the bottom of the Baltic Sea from three Russian torpedoes, it took the lives of more than 9,000 people. Many were refugees and injured soldiers who were “trying to escape from a no-man’s land neither Axis nor Allied in a war already lost but not yet won.” (Read the spot-on New York Times review.)
Weaving four narratives in very short chapters (reminiscent of All the Light We Cannot See), Ms. Sepetys brought me there to Gdynia, Poland, with her characters and asked me to make impossible, often heartbreaking decisions. Leave your family behind? Wait for the iron curtain to close across Eastern Europe or take your chance with the Nazis? Send your baby aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff with strangers in a desperate attempt to get him to safety? Behind each of these decisions were people faced with seemingly insurmountable odds. We put ourselves in their shoes. We wonder: would I have the courage, the strength to overcome this?
Every time I pick up a new book, my eyes are opened again and again, and I learn more about myself and the kind of person I want to be.
“I am drawn to stories of strength through struggle. I think how we deal with the challenges that face us—that’s what really defines us.” ~Ruta Sepetys.
What books have stretched your world lately? Have a great weekend, everyone!