Title: Salt to the Sea
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction
Publisher: Philomel Books
Release Date: February 2nd, 2016
Length: 393 pages | 8 hours 47 minutes
Source: Gifted to me by the amazing Cyra at Rattle the Pages
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.
Once again, Ruta Sepetys spins an engaging, well-paced historical fiction. As with Between Shades of Gray (which is touched on in this novel), the setting is WWII. The climax of the story is the greatest maritime disaster of all time- which, before reading this, I would’ve said was probably the sinking of the Lusitania or the Titanic. Nope. When the Titanic went down, 1,500 souls perished. When the Wilhelm Gustloff sank, over 9,000 people died. The tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff within this book is no great surprise- the title, the cover, all elude to it. But until I read this I had never heard about it. It’s chilling to think how easy it is to cover up the deaths of over 9,000 civilians in a single hour during a war.
To be honest, more heartbreaking (and just as horrific) is the background of the characters, each of whom survives the atrocities of war and carries guilt, shame, and fear. Well, ok, except for the sociopathic Hitler Youth character, who is very clearly meant to be a character nobody likes. Every other character is totally sympathetic, even the under-developed ones. Because Sepetys is a thorough researcher and not prone to a lot of historic embellishment, and because I’ve read Between Shades of Gray (about the gulags in Siberia, also meticulously researched), I have to assume these plot points are based on fact.
The swath of destruction cut by the Soviets, as well as the Nazis, and the horrors suffered by everyone caught in between, is truly brought to life. Having a character who strongly identifies as Polish, or Lithuanian, or East Prussian, also makes real the fact that these countries no longer existed as they had just years before. And it’s very humbling to think of that. And heartbreaking. The loss of refuge and hope is, to me, more poignant than even the loss of life.
In addition to being a powerful story, it’s very fast-paced, making it the kind of book you pour through in a sitting. The story is told from four different perspectives, and they swap chapters. Each chaptes is 1-5 pages long, so you never get too far into the head of any single character. But each voice is different enough that they are recognizable instantly.
Overall, I recommend this book to anyone who likes historic fiction, or YA, or both. Especially if you don’t mind having your heart broken, and want to learn more about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff (her Author’s Note includes some great resources and references).