Release Date: February 2, 2016
Length: 400 pages
Source: Borrowed from library
For readers of Between Shades of Gray and All the Light We Cannot See, bestselling author Ruta Sepetys returns to WWII in this epic novel that shines a light on one of the war’s most devastating—yet unknown—tragedies.
World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, many 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 to safety.
Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people—adults and children alike—aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.
Told in alternating points of view and perfect for fans of Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See, Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, and Elizabeth Wein’s Printz Honor Book Code Name Verity, this masterful work of historical fiction is inspired by the real-life tragedy that was the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff—the greatest maritime disaster in history. As she did in Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys unearths a shockingly little-known casualty of a gruesome war, and proves that humanity and love can prevail, even in the darkest of hours.
I am so happy that I finally read this book. About a year and a half ago, I read Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray and was absolutely captivated by it. So when I heard that she was writing another novel about a little-known piece of WWII history, I knew I had to pick it up.
Salt to the Sea is told with 4 alternating points of view: Joana, Florian, Emilia, and Alfred. Aside from Alfred (you’ll see what I mean by this when you read the book), all 3 are wonderful young characters who are easy to empathize with. All three are running in one way or another from the war, whether running from the Nazis or the Russians. Despite coming from different backgrounds, all have experienced significant losses and have really struggled because of the war. My heart truly broke as I learned what these characters were trying to escape from, both physically and emotionally.
I’ll admit when I started off the novel, I worried that the 4 POVs were too difficult to separate and that I would have a hard time connecting with the characters and understanding the story because of it. However, after reading each POV maybe 2-3 times, this was no longer a problem for me. My only complaint of the POVs after finishing the book would be that I don’t really think Alfred brought anything to the story other than helping Florian and Joana and I’m not sure that he was really needed.
One of the biggest strengths of Salt to the Sea is that you truly see how much the war affected everyone. I’ve read my fair share of WWII historical fiction, but the vast majority of it focuses on either how the soldiers were affected or how hard it was for those who were taken to the ghettos and/or concentration camps. While these are obviously important stories to tell, it’s just as important (not to mention interesting) to see how others were affected. You get a true sense of their desperation and need to escape the war.
As I already briefly mentioned, Salt to the Sea, like Between Shades of Gray, tells a fictional story of a true event that is not very well known. As is mentioned in Sepetys’ author’s note, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is one of the biggest maritime disasters in recorded history – over 9,000 people died – yet most people have never heard of it. I hadn’t until I read this. Sepetys brings awareness to this tragic event and allows those who died to be remembered.
As I expected, the writing was great. It easily gets you to connect with the characters, including side characters. (Again, the exception being Alfred.) Despite going into the book knowing that the Wilhelm Gustloff would sink, I was still getting so nervous and upset as the boat began to sink. I wanted so badly for everyone to get their happy ending despite knowing that it was unlikely.
My complaints are few and small. A large portion of the book focuses on the characters traveling, trying to make it to the port to secure a spot on one of the ships. This could be quite slow and boring at times. However, I still really enjoyed getting to know the characters, both as individuals and as a group.
My other complaint is half-complaint, half-praise (confusing, I know). The chapters are extremely short. I think the longest one was maybe 4-5 pages but most were around 2-3. For the most part, this was not an issue for me at all. I like short chapters as I don’t have the best attention span and so being able to take breaks without having to stop in the middle of a chapter was greatly appreciated. I also liked the short chapters since it made it easier to read when I only had a few minutes to spare (I hate having to stop in the middle of a chapter and thus usually only read if I know I have plenty of time to do so). The reason why I also feel the short length wasn’t a good thing was because there were times where I really wanted more of that particular moment in that particular POV and only getting 2 pages could be frustrating.
This really was an absolutely fantastic read. If you’re a fan of YA historical fiction, I would recommend this to you. If you like learning about little-known parts of history, I would recommend this to you. Basically, if anything about this book sounds appealing to you, I would recommend it to you. Sepetys wrote a wonderfully touching and heart-breaking story that will surely leave its mark on you.