Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys – Book Review and Writing Tips

The sound of children screaming, wood splintering, and life departing roared from behind. I tried to run toward the crowd but the soldier grabbed me and threw me off the road. I crawled through the snow toward the pink of Emilia’s hat and draped my body over hers. (Joana)

I’ve read many books about the atrocities that occurred during World War II and hesitated to open another. I’m glad that I did. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys is a timely reminder of the human costs and futility of war.

Salt to the Sea unfolds through the voices of four separate narrators: Joana (a nurse who is haunted by guilt); Florian (an artist whose skill is his fate); Emilia (whose condition is her shame); and Alfred (whose fear propels him toward betrayal and delusion). Joana, Florian and Emilia—along with a blind girl, an old shoemaker, a small boy, and a giant woman—make a hellish journey toward the port at Gotenhafen, walking across Lithuania, East Prussia, and Poland as Russia advances toward Germany and Germany advances toward Russia. Alfred awaits aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a luxury liner refitted to evacuate German military and refugees.

I held the paper, waiting to approach the checkpoint. I stared at the type.… Special pass. It looked real. Perhaps my best work ever. (Florian)

At the lagoon, the refugees must cross there was a strafing, panic of course, then fifteen-year-old Emilia:

We waited on the bank for several hours but the planes did not return. The water froze again. So did our hands and feet.

I held my breath as we crossed, quivering at the thought of our Ingrid frozen beneath. The ice ached and groaned, like bones carrying too many years, brittle and threatening to snap at any moment.

Alfred, already aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff is a frightened boy, a boy in the German navy:

This would be my first-ever journey at sea. My maiden voyage had already presented its challenges. I noticed an unbecoming rash had appeared on my hands and in my armpits. I blamed the Communists.

These excerpts do not begin to demonstrate the page-turning intensity of the story. Sepetys does not wow with vocabulary or overwrought emotion. She lets each of her narrators slowly reveal their character and together their voices accumulate to tell the larger, universal horrors of thousands of women, old men and children crossing treacherous landscapes and borders (the young men—except for Florian—have been conscripted).

I highly recommend Salt to the Sea. I’m a slow reader but the bedside lamp was lit most of two nights straight and the last page was read before the weekend was over.

For the writers among us:

  1. The point of view of the narrator affects what readers are told and how they respond to a story. The story of the three little pigs would be different if told from the wolf’s perspective rather than an omnipotent narrator who is sympathetic to the pigs’ plight. Think about Sepetys use of multiple narrators and what she may be attempting to achieve that she could not achieve with a single narrator.
  2. As Robert Fulford wrote in The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture, “There is no such thing as just a story. A story is always charged with meaning, otherwise it is not a story, merely a sequence of events. [T]here is no such thing as value-free story.” As you read, think about the values embedded in Salt to the Sea. What is Sepetys telling us about war and its victims?
  3. Do you write (or will you attempt writing) stories with multiple points-of-view? What can you learn from Ruta Sepetys’ Salt and the Sea? Poets too: accept the challenge.

All this…and we did not even touch on researching and writing historical fiction! Another time perhaps.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Salt to the Sea

Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese (Book Review & Writing Tips)

…the day that’s all around you, is inside you too, and you think that it’s a perfect fit. But you go outside and you walk in your woe. You take it to the streets or the fields or wherever and you walk in it.

This is what you do with yearning.

A book is powerful when it captures emotion, when it stirs memory buried so deep you’re surprised when it surfaces. Ragged Company by the late Ojibway author Richard Wagamese is a powerful story.

The memory Wagamese stirred in me is rooted in a downtown neighbourhood of Ottawa around 25 years ago. Every morning as I walked the few blocks to my office along the river, I passed a man sitting on a worn grey blanket, his back to a wall. In winter, icy wind tunneled through the street. In summer, dust and debris blew relentlessly. I respected his diligence. Some mornings—not every morning—I dropped change into his hat, but whether I did or not, we nodded. Gradually over time, I think we looked for each other. One morning, he beckoned me to squat down as he unfolded a newspaper. There on his lap was a feather. “A peregrine feather,” he told me. A man had found it—a pair were nesting high on one of the city’s hotel towers—and had given it to him. A hawk feather. A simple, thoughtful act. A smile crinkled his eyes. I felt deeply honoured to be sharing his joy.

Ragged Company is a hard story told in stark language through the voices of five narrators—four “rounders” of the streets and one “Straight John.” Everyone has a story, and none are as soft as mine. One of the characters, One For the Dead (they each have street names), explains to the “Straight John” the importance stories play in our lives:

“We’re all storytellers, Granite,” I said. “From the moment we’re graced with the beginnings of language, we become storytellers. Kids, the first thing they do when they learn to talk is tell you all about what they’re doing, what they’re seeing. They tell you stories about their little lives. Us, too. When we get together after not seeing each other for a while, the first thing we do is tell each other a story about what we’ve been up to. What we’ve seen, what we did, what we felt and went through. Guess we kinda can’t help ourselves that way. It’s who we are.

I won’t go into the plot line of Ragged Company, you can check the cover copy for that, but the themes of loss and yearning and the importance of friendship and respect are particularly interesting as explored by Wagamese.

Although Granite is a retired journalist who knows something about stories, he learns more about others and about himself. He comes to realize a truth:

Beggary. It’s not the sole property of the street people or the ill defined. It’s part of all of us, part of everyone who has ever suffered loss. A handout. It meant something more suddenly. It meant more than the image and the idea of a dirty, wrinkled, weakened hand stretched outward to accept nickels and dimes. It meant every hand extended across the galaxy of separation that exists between all of us.

This is a story about loss of culture, loss of family, loss of love, and loss of self. It is also a story about finding those things within and through the company of others. It is course and tender, brutal and poetic. The sixth narrator—perhaps the voice of Wagamese—is reflective and appears sparingly in offset italic type. It is this voice that introduced the novel and the thread of movies that runs throughout creating insight, magical, empathetic insight.

For the writers among us:

  1. Movies become open doorways to understanding unspoken realities and dreams, catalysts for feeling and for discussion among the unlikely friendships. Whether you write prose or poetry, think about how you open windows and doors for your characters and readers?
  2. We write our myths and legends into our work, sometimes directly as Wagamese does with Ojibway stories, and sometimes subtly written between the lines. Think about your awareness of the stories layered in your writing and what they add to (or distract from) your theme.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Ragged Company

Days into Flatspin by Ken Babstock: “A Poetry Book Review”

Days into Flatspin is Ken Babstock’s extraordinary second collection and it reveals a poet in full flight, fearless and technically brilliant.

Diving into and then beyond what is seen, or the “coma of looking” as one poem calls it, Babstock veers into the inner core of things, animals, and places through portals that exist all around us…. And these are always entry points, always a means by which to go forward and further into… (cover overleaf).

The first time I read Days into Flatspin by Ken Babstock, the words rushed through my mind and over my lips: they raced. They carried a voice, dramatic and theatrical. It was easy to imagine Babstock, like poetry slam writer Taylor Mali, performing the poems (see May 2018 review: The Whetting Stone). I was carried by the force of words and rhythms and was left feeling disconcerted. Then I read Days into Flatspin again.

Reflecting on Babcock’s choice of words, I thought of Ursula LeGuin who wrote that words “transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it” (The Wave of the Mind). Babstock’s poems brim with energy and they clearly fed energy to me. But that addressed only part of my dilemma, which led me to Jane Hirshfield (please see Ten Windows). Hirshfield notes that “a poem needs to retain within its words some of the disequilibrium that called it forth, and to include when it is finished some sense also of uncomfortable remainder, the undissolvable residue carried over….”

In Babstock’s second collection, his mastery of these skills – words that create action/energy and words that leave the door open for a remaining question – is clear from the outset. I looked closely at Babstock’s word choices and the work they were doing together.

The first poem titled “Carrying someone else’s infant past a cow in a field near Marmora, Ont.,” ends:

…What was I shown that I haven’t retained?
What peered back long before the cracked
bell of its name

This unknown (unknowable?) is also apparent in the second poem “Bottled Rabbit,” in which Babstock describes an image seen, alludes to a charcoal sketch by Cézanne, a CBC interviewer in Gander, Newfoundland, a play by Pinter, and his great-aunt’s kitchenette. But suddenly, the scene shifts: “The word wore down, thinned to a film on the air in the ear. Morning ate its hinge.” Once more, after the carefully constructed images and linkages Babstock provides, we leap into something surprisingly different from where the poem ostensibly was taking us. He draws us into what is seen but also unseen, what is felt, unknown, unsayable.

My favourite poem in Days into Flatspin, “The Painting on the Cover of Otherwise,”  seems to explain a bit about what drives so many of the poems in the collection toward unsettled feelings.  He begins with an image:

A small pond dug
into a footpath that bisects
a French garden. The neat
hedgerows bent, obey.

And then, he identifies what is missing, things like “wind…litter, heel-scuffs…a sparrow, anything.” Perhaps, like me, you will come away from reading the collection with a new awareness of the dichotomy between what is seen – how we often idealize it – and what is more deeply experienced through what lingers after the immediacy of the moment when we ponder the place “where hard edges slip…unclipped…beyond the vined wall that darkens the middle distance.”

This unfocused middle distance of mystery is what Ken Babstock discloses through a turn, a surprising glimpse that doesn’t provide an answer to our questions, but draws us to a deeper, elusive potential.

The writers among us will have heard Emily Dickinson’s instruction to “tell it slant.” Many will know LeGuin’s advice about making every word a choice; particularly poets will know that every word must work. We have probably also been told to reward readers for reading to the end, to provide a surprise, a twist, something that illuminates. Hirshfield’s suggestion to create a disconcerting disequilibrium is another consideration that pushes boundaries and borders.

Days into Flatspin achieves this triumvirate of advice. The poems begin with what we may each have experienced, but they take us beyond images, sounds, emotion into deeper, surprising places of heart and mind.

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In addition to Days into Flatspin (2001), Ken Babstock has published Mean (1999), Methodist Hatchet (2011; Winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize, 2012), and On Malice (2014).

Available through your local bookstore or online: Days into Flatspin

Two Landscapes (The Cave by José Saramago)

Cipriano Algor is “A lover of proverbs, adages, maxims, and other popular sayings, one of those rare eccentrics who imagines he knows more than he was taught, would say that there’s something so fishy going on here, you can even see the fish’s tail.”

To say The Cave by José Saramago is brilliant would be mimicking others, as would saying it is a magical allegory, a unique story by a master storyteller (Nobel Prize for Literature winner), an insightful commentary on society’s shifts and the changing values placed on creators and those of commerce. It’s also an intimate story of one man’s life and dreams and the things he loves: his pottery; his daughter; his son-in-law; and a run-away dog called “Found;” his late wife; and (he has trouble admitting it) a widow he meets in the cemetery. The novel is witty and wise, brimming with aphorisms and wisdom; it made me smile and feel deeply for Saramago’s characters and the situation of their lives.

On the surface, we have a simple story about a generational pottery where utilitarian tableware is made using traditional techniques, where a drying rack and stone meditation bench stand in the shade of a mulberry tree on the outskirts of a rural village. The pots that Cipriano Algor creates are transported in an aged van to “The Center,” a walled full-service complex (residents never have to leave) beyond the rural village and a no-man’s-land of crime-riddled shanties, an industrial belt, and a so-called “green belt, which is not green but a wasteland of greenhouses. An artificial place cut off from nature. Saramago presents readers with two opposing landscapes.

Cipriano Algor does not want to move to The Centre, although circumstances weigh against him. But there are people who want to live in the spreading and towering complex where Cipriano Algor’s son-in-law, Marçal Gaucho, works as a security guard. Marçal’s parents are among those scheming to live in The Center. Tension develops as his promotion as a resident guard looms and the family’s move to the shopping-apartment complex becomes imminent. But other themes beyond the family’s dilemma—a socio-political-philosophical vein—runs through the story.

In The Cave, José Saramago explores—through the lives of this small group—what it means to create in a world that prefers plastic over pottery, a world where appearance is accepted as reality. It is a story of beliefs and humanity, of knowledge and feelings and how village values and life differ vastly from the narrow rigidity, the blindness of those we meet in The Centre and the impact of advertising and commercialism. Inside, reality is simulated. Residents find the artificial landscapes and “experiences” better than reality. As in Plato’s story of the same name, shadows are what people see and accept. Our protagonist, Cipriano Algor, ponders this blindness:

They say that landscape is a state of mind, that we see the outer landscape with our inner eye, but is that because those [citizens of The Centre] are unable to see these factories and these hangars, this smoke devouring the sky, this toxic dust, this never-ending mud, these layers of soot, yesterday’s rubbish… .

What we see (or don’t see), where and how we live, influence values and actions.

Saramago shares clues as to how complex and totally believable characters are created. He gives us a narrator to love and characters that experience contradictions, especially those contradictions between feelings, thoughts, and actions. This becomes clear when Cipriano Algor faces the widow Isaura Madruga, a distressing situation for both where time stands still and neither character speaks. Here, the narrator enters:

Something must be done. Yes, something, but not just anything. We could and should violate the orderly logic and discipline of the story, but we must never ever violate what constitutes the exclusive and essential character of a person, that is, his personality, his way of being, his own, unmistakable nature. A character can be full of contradictions, but never incoherent, and if we insist on this point it is because, contrary to what dictionaries may say, incoherence and contradiction are not synonymous. A person or character contradicts himself within the bounds of his own coherence, whereas incoherence, which, far more than contradiction, is a constant behavioural characteristic, resists contradiction, eliminates it, cannot stand to live with it.

The silence between the couple is broken and we are left with an enigma. For those “reading as writers,” we can enjoy a few clues to apply to our own thinking and stories from a master storyteller.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Cave