Book Review: Salt to the Sea
By: Ruta Sepetys
Published By: Philomel Books
Publication Date: February 2, 2016
Page Count: 391
Source: Purchased by Reviewer
Audience: Young Adult - Historical Fiction
I am a big fan of Ruta Sepetys and I have been anxiously anticipating this novel since I heard about it. Sepetys always delivers a meticulously researched story with compelling characters and heartbreaking plot twists. I knew this one would be no exception.
Sepetys has returned to the WWII era for this novel. I love how she brings the untold stories to light. Sadly, I had never heard of the event surrounding the Wilhelm Gustloff or Operation Hannibal. It pains me to admit that my knowledge of WWII is often limited to the US perspective. Reading Sepetys' novels reminds me that so many other lives were effected and the most heartbreaking stories often focus on civilians. Salt to the Sea is haunting, gorgeously written, and tragic.
Salt to the Sea follows four teenagers as they approach the coast trying to flee ahead of the Russian army. Each one of the four has a separate purpose for being on the boat, but they will find their lives tangled in unexpected ways. Emilia is a young Polish girl who is desperately trying to get to safety while worrying that she will never see her father or Poland again. To make matters worse, the Germans see all Poles as undesirables and the Russians aren't any better. Emilia is alone in a strange land and hiding a secret that threatens to tear her apart. Along the way to the sea, she encounters Florian, a Prussian who is carrying his own secrets. Florian is on a mission to avenge his father and gain revenge against the Nazis. He has no desire to get mixed up with others, but soon finds himself saddled with multiple traveling companions. Joana is traveling with several other refugees when her path crosses with Emilia and Florian. Joana is a nurse and she treats Florian's wounds, but finds that she is drawn to him more than she should be. Finally, there is Alfred, a young soldier aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, who is seeking fame and glory. He will become integral to the fates of the other three main characters as the story progresses.
The novel unfolds in three basic parts: the journey to the coast, boarding the ship, and the brief voyage and its tragic aftermath. How could such a tragic event in which so many lives (mainly those of children) were lost not be something most people have heard of? We know of the Titanic and the Lusitania, but the Wilhelm Gustloff has a much higher body count and is largely unknown. Is this because so much of what we are taught about WWII focuses on the Allies - particularly the US and UK?
As always, Sepetys puts a human face to tragedy by creating characters who come to live off the page. I felt like I was experiencing the journey along side each one of them. The chapters rotate perspectives so readers can experience the story from all four angles. I was worried the point of view of four main characters would be difficult to follow, but I needn't have stressed about that. Sepetys handles things in a way that makes it very manageable to keep track of whose who. I found myself most drawn to Joana and Emilia.
In addition, there is a connection to Lina from Between Shades of Gray. The moment when the lightbulb went off in my mind about Lina was an intense moment. It brought back the feelings Lina's story conjured in my heart and mind with tremendous force.
If you're a fan of historical fiction, you must read Sepetys' work. In my opinion, she is by far one of the best YA historical fiction writers out there. I cannot wait to see what event she will focus on next and which characters she will bring to life to tell the tale.
One Last Gripe: I wanted more from the ending. It did provide some closure, but it felt brief compared to the rest of the novel.
Favorite Thing About This Book: Learning a new piece of WWII history - I'm inspired to do more research and reading on the topic
First Sentence: Guilt is a hunter.
Favorite Character: Joana
Least Favorite Character: Alfred
Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.
Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.
As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.
Yet not all promises can be kept.
Inspired by the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, bestselling and award-winning author Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray) lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II. An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope.