Title: Salt to the Sea
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Genre: YA Historical Fiction
Published: February 2, 2016
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Quick Synopsis: 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.
“Your daughter, your sister. She is salt to the sea.”
I had never read anything by Ruta Sepetys before Salt to the Sea, despite owning her popular Between Shades of Gray. Originally, it was the cover combined with the title that drew me in, but I didn’t intend to read it so soon after it’s release date. I just added it to my to-be-read shelf on Goodreads and that was that. But then Amazon sent me an email with a 40% off coupon code for a pre-order of the novel. I couldn’t pass that up, of course. When it arrived at my house, there was again something about it that drew me in, and I decided I needed to start it that night. This book was more than I ever could have dreamed it would be. I was moved so greatly by these characters and their stories, more so than I have been in a long time with a book. I know this novel is one that will stick with me.
Salt to the Sea is fast-paced and interesting from the first chapter. The chapters are told from four alternating first person points of view, each one giving a very different perspective of the occurring events. There’s Joana, a Lithuanian nurse, Emilia, a young, pregnant Polish girl, Florian, a Prussian forger, and Alfred, an unhinged German sailor. At first I was a little weary about there being that many perspectives, but I quickly fell in love with Joana, Emilia, and Florian, and eagerly anticipated each point of view. The same didn’t apply for Alfred. Alfred, an obsessive follower of Hitler and egotistical psychopath, is the sort of character that demands to be loathed. However, his perspective still added to the story. Each chapter was no more than 3-4 pages long, which made it so easy for me to keep saying, “oh, just one more” until I had resigned to the fact that I just couldn’t put the book down. I think the short chapters also built up the suspense which contributed to why I flew through the book. I know that usually, at least for me, historical fiction novels can be extremely slow because of how detailed and descriptive they are. I almost always enjoy them anyway, but I have never read a historical fiction this quickly. There’s a simplicity to Sepetys’s writing, yet every word has meaning and packs a punch. I was hooked.
The events which this is based on, Operation Hannibal and the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, were events that I had never learned about in school, but I soon learned that not many people did know of them, and that’s why Sepetys wanted to write the novel to begin with. Even though this was the greatest tragedy in maritime history, it is overshadowed by the Titanic and the Lusitania. She gave these real victims a voice through her amazing characters so that their stories could live on through fiction. And oh, did the protagonists have stories. Each of them had lost so much to the war, and the way Joana, Emilia, and Florian (along with their group) were able to lean on each other and find comfort in their shared situations was absolutely beautiful. The relationships in the story were so touching and powerful that it made it extremely difficult whenever something sad would happen to any of them. I’ve seen people say that this book shows the negatives of humanity, but that it also shows how good people can be to each other in times of suffering. I could not agree more. These characters’ relationships moved me.
Yes, this book was heartbreaking at times. Yes, I cried more than once. Historical fiction tends to do that, eh? But that just shows how much emotion the author writes with and how well she is able to craft a story that affects readers in such a way. I could hardly read the last few pages because my tears were blurring them, but the end also had closure and a sense of hope. Once again, I was struck by the goodness of humanity in these times. And even though the end left me an emotional mess, I was satisfied. The stories wrapped up beautifully and in the only ways that made sense. I finished the book at 2 a.m. last night, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking of it since. I definitely didn’t anticipate that it would pull this sort of reaction from me.
I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about these unknown events in history or to anyone who just wants to enjoy a beautiful story with equally beautiful characters. I’m so glad I picked this up. It’s extremely sad to know that of the thousands who died in the ship’s sinking, about half of them were children. That makes the young adult protagonists seem all the more realistic, and it emphasized just how tragic this all really was. It’s crazy to me how many people they managed to put on that ship for rescue.
“Ships capacity: 1,463
Passengers on board: 10,573
But then I remembered.
Ten of the lifeboats were missing”
This passage put that into perspective for me.
Anyway, I know this all sounds very sad, but if that’s turning you off from this book, I encourage you to give it a chance anyway. Of course there are moments of sadness, but there are also moments of hope, love, and even happiness strewn throughout the pages.
Please. Do yourself a favor and read this book. And I’ll just leave you with that.
Have you read Salt to the Sea? Do you plan on it? Please share your thoughts and opinions below!
Until next time, keep reading and writing! – Veronica