Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Publishing Date: February 2
Genre: young adult, historical fiction
In 1945, World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia, and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, almost all of them with something to hide. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer toward safety.
Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.
Four young adults’ journeys to escape East Prussia and survive the war intersect in January 1945. Three of them — Joana, Emilia, and Florian, all of different backgrounds with secrets of their own — seek asylum across the waters. The fourth, Alfred, is a Nazi sailor attempting to justify assisting the “lesser races” as they flee the Russians. But when they meet on the Wilhelm Gustloff, secrets are no longer safely hidden, and spilling the truth may be their only chance at surviving the destruction of the ship.
Just as Between Shades of Gray, this book made me weep, reflect, weep, ponder, and weep some more. I’m once again left speechless, with slightly more coherent thoughts developing each day after finishing this book. Instead of trying to convince another reader with quotes, I’ll leave quick trails of thought.
HISTORY. Sepetys captured yet another Eastern European horror rarely studied in school or discussed in WWII reflections. This book is full of the devastating facts of the war in Europe, and how caught in the middle Eastern Europeans were between Germany and Russia. Like with BSOG, she takes survivors’ true accounts, changes names and snippets of their situations, and provides an informative history book that will no doubt be used in classrooms. History is important. We cannot let atrocities like these continuously happen.
WRITING. Sepetys is not a lush writer. There’s no need for exaggeration or embellishment. She provides the facts; the reader develops the emotions. She writes one line about an emaciated cow on the side of the road with burst, frozen utters — your gut clenches in this simple, painful horror. She writes one line about orphan children being passed from one group to the next so refugees can board the ship — you wonder at what point in your fight for survival you would exchange children like currency. She writes one line about a mother tossing her baby over the ship, aiming for a lifeboat, and the baby drowns in the waters — you sense the desperation, fear, and sorrow. She writes one line about Polish families refusing to leave their lands, with graves pre-dug in their gardens and a plan in place to lie in them and take their own lives when they hear of the Russians marching through — you’re a goner.
STORY. A thief, a nurse, a Pole, and a sociopath. They represent so many of the lives lost in the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Though the book covers the month of January, it’s within the few days of boarding and setting sail that all the truths come to light. As panic rises, as their fate becomes inevitable, chaos outside and within explodes.
Sepetys wrote another heart-wrenching nonfiction book masked as fiction. I cannot stress enough how important it is to read Salt to the Sea, to read Between Shades of Gray, to reflect on your life and the lives lost after reading. Sepetys understands the nature of humanity on such a deep level. I trust her completely.
Thank you, Edelweiss, for providing this book from Philomel for review.
HIGHLIGHT FOR SPOILER: Joana is Lina’s cousin from BSOG!