Tag Archives: Courage

“Salt to the Sea”: healing through story

I was chatting with some friends recently and we were talking about the idea that after a while, there might be a burn-out of how many WWII novels and movies we can consume. What about the other wars? Or, is it that WWII has left its mark on the world and it’s something we are still trying to fully understand. There are millions of stories that we haven’t heard yet because everyone’s experience was different. During this conversation, I had just started to read Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. What a great novel! And I have to say that I found it didn’t just retell the same stories I’ve heard or read before. It was something new. Terrible, yet new.


Source: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25614492-salt-to-the-sea

Salt to the Sea is the story of three young people caught up in the war and all trying to find hope and freedom in the docks. Thousands of people are trying to escape the Germans and Russians and end up getting onto refugee boats seeking safety. I had never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff ship disaster before, but in fact I feel that I should have. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff caused more loss of life than the sinking of the Titanic. The Titanic sunk because of hitting an iceberg, whereas the Wilhelm Gustloff, full of mostly women and children and injured men, was torpedoed by the Russians.

Just looking at images online was heartbreaking.


Source: https://www.welt.de/geschichte/zweiter-weltkrieg/article136893332/Der-Trinker-der-die-Wilhelm-Gustloff-versenkte.html


Source: https://europebetweeneastandwest.wordpress.com/tag/wilhelm-gustloff/


Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/142567144425047906/


Source: http://worldwartwo.filminspector.com/2016/01/sinking-of-wilhelm-gustloff.html


Source: https://www.zyjepodwoda.pl/en/wrak-wilhelm-gustloff-morze-baltyckie/

The novel is told from the point of view of four different characters. Each character has a unique story, yet they all end up seeking safety on this ship. One young man is running from the Nazis because of something he stole from a prominent Officer. One young woman is running because she is trying to be reunited with her family after being given permission to stay in Germany because of her skills as a nurse. Another younger woman is running away from both the Germans and the Russians because of her nationality. And the last young man is a German officer who is desperately trying to prove himself as courageous without actually doing anything that requires sacrifice. This cast of misfits intertwine with each other and use and help each other in order to get onto the boat.

Like all war stories, this one has a tragic ending for all involved, even those who survive the wreck. Those who survive are fortunate, yet have to live with the visions of seeing hundreds of people, fellow passengers and asylum seekers, die in the waters around them.

I can’t help but think about all of these people who survived and how they most likely spent their lives living with post-traumatic stress disorder. And not only that, but this book made me start to think about intergeneration trauma: trauma that is transmitted to next generations.

In an article in Psychology Today by Molly Castelloe, she includes this thought:

Transmission is the giving of a task. The next generation must grapple with the trauma, find ways of representing it and spare transmitting the experience of hell back to one’s parents. A main task of transmission is to resist disassociating from the family heritage and “bring its full, tragic story into social discourse.” (Fromm, xxi)

So perhaps we need stories about WWII because we aren’t finished sharing the trauma and the stories. Perhaps people like my parents, who both had fathers in WWII, need to write and produce art that still tells the stories of their parents. Perhaps a world that is afraid of another war, because Veterans from WWII and the Vietnam, Korean, and Gulf Wars, needs to share and tell stories about WWII in order to carry the trauma into the future in order to find healing. In a world that is in desperate need of healing, perhaps stories are the way to healing.


Source: http://izquotes.com/quote/342421

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” -Phillip Pullman



“Something Fierce”: emotional evolution

I’ve had Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter by Carmen Aguirre on my bookshelf for a while. I love Canada Reads on the CBC and I love Shad, so of course I had to buy the book that Shad defended in the 2012 CBC Canada Reads debate. I bought it, then shelved it . . . until now.
Source: http://arts.nationalpost.com/2012/02/09/carmen-aguirres-something-fierce-wins-canada-reads/

I know next to nothing about the politics of South America. I know that the US liked to interfere with coups. I know that there is a lot of corruption. I know that the drug trade is huge. I know that there is a huge gap between the rich and the poor. Next to nothing. Yet my sad knowledge of South America did not stop me from devouring Aguirre’s memoir. Aguirre writes about her experiences of the underground revolutionaries in Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil from the time she is a young 12 year-old girl until she is an adult. The politics of these countries and the horrors that revolutionaries experienced are seen from a personal perspective.

At the beginning of the memoir, I couldn’t help but think that Carmen and Mindy, from the TV show The Mindy Project, are very similar. Carmen is a boy-crazy young teenager. In a hilarious description of herself just after moving from Vancouver down to the South and on the Inca Trail, Carmen writes:

There was a full moon lighting our passage, and my knees were wobbly from excitement as we clambered down the steep stone stairs: one of the boys from the Indian family had been peering at me across the fires . . . Halfway down the steps made by his ancestors, I looked back, and sure enough, there he was, standing at the top, hands in his pockets. When his eyes met mine, I smiled and leaned into one of my hips, just as Olivia Newton-John had done after John Travolta collapsed at the sight of her in Grease. But I’d leaned too far, because now I was rolling down the stairs . . . [I] resumed my Sandy stance. I looked for the boy, but he was no longer at the top (pg 25-26).

Throughout her memoirs, Aguirre includes several stories about her teenage awkwardness and her boy-crazy antics. At one point, she becomes known in the neighbourhood for kissing all the boys. So much so that the mothers on her street gather, write a letter to her parents, and deliver the letter about Carmen’s behaviour.

So for those of you who have seen The Mindy Project, you can see the similarities!
Sources: http://www.cbc.ca/books/canadareads/2012/01/carmen-aguirre-on-her-publishing-journey.html and

Yet what I love about Aguirre’s memoir is that as Carmen grows in years and matures, she also grows in her passion for the underground revolutionary movement to bring change to Chile. Aguirre was born in Chile, yet moved with her parents to Vancouver when they were exiled from Chile. Even though she was young, Aguirre developed a strong love for and bond with her home country. In a scene where she describes her Chilean grandparents visiting Vancouver, she writes: “They’d brought Chile with them in their pockets, their suitcases, their eyes and voices. I’d smelled a country on them when we greeted them at the airport, a country that still clung to my own skin and hair. It was something fierce, that country” (pg 63).

Aguirre’s love and passion for Chile is part of who she is as a person. Although she witnesses horrible events in her streets, hears about the torture of revolutionaries, has absentee revolutionary parents, and risks her life as a teenager, her love for Chile and the people of Chile inspires her to act courageously in order to better the lives of the people living in Chile. As a adult, her life is devoted to the underground revolution and to bringing equality and hope to the country she loves.

Her love for Chile comes at a cost. Throughout the memoir she describes her fear as a rat crawling up her spine. She realizes that if she is to continue the freedom-fighting work, she will have to compartmentalize herself: soul, heart, work. The state of living in constant fear and terror of being caught and tortured was too much for those in the underground to shoulder. Aguirre’s experiences with fear and the face of courage she put on in the midst of that fear reminds me of Farley Mowat’s reaction to being in WWII in his novel And No Birds Sang. In his novel, Mowat describes his experiences as a solider in Italy. In a particularly grisly battle scene, Mowat describes his fear as a worm growing in his gut and taking over:

The scouts were brewing tea in a nearby cow byre. They watched me without expression as I briefed George Langstaff and two other men. They knew I had at least glimpsed the valley in daylight and so was the logical one to lead the patrol. What they did not know was that the mere prospect of descending into that ominously shrouded valley was paralyzing me. I was convinced that death or ghastly mutilation awaited me there. The certainty was absolute! The Worm that was growing in my gut had told me so. (pg 220)

Source: http://markwestman.blogspot.ca/2010/09/book-review-and-no-birds-sang.html

Both Aguirre and Mowat are extremely brave. Not only did they experience horrible, unimaginable things, but they also had the courage to relive their experiences as they wrote about them. In her afterword, Aguirre thanks some of the people in her life. The one that stood out to me was this one:
“Thank you to one of the founding members of the resistance, who, on his deathbed, made me promise to tell this story, because it has not been told enough, because it is a story that must not die with the people who lived it” (pg 277).

Carmen Aguirre is an amazing, courageous, humble, devoted, and passionate person. As she closes her memoir she writes, “And my grateful thanks to all those who came before, those who are fighting now and those who will continue to fight for a better future for all. I am awed, inspired and humbled by your dedication to the struggle, whether you are in the Gaza Strip, in India, in Mexico or in Bolivia, continuing to support Evo. I stand in solidarity with you” (pg 277).

From a hormone-charged teenager trying to live a double life to an adult who has the courage to share her story of resistance and terror, Aguirre, as described through her memoir, will stay with me as an example of a woman who worked hard to give a voice to the marginalized.

“I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this gray and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Keep in mind that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again and free men will walk through them to construct a better society. Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!” (Salvador Allende, 1973)
God shows no partiality. (Romans 2:11)

Source: http://fabeetle.com/che-guevara-quotes/che-guevara-quotes-2/