By Ruta Sepetys
Publisher: Philomel Books
Format: Print ARC
Publication Date: February 2, 2016
To Sum It Up: In 1945, Joana, Florian, and Emilia are among the thousands trying to flee East Prussia as Soviet troops close in. All three have suffered so much loss during the war and are heavily burdened with secrets, but hope may be within reach if they can secure places on board the German ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff. The trek to the Gustloff is rife with danger, but it may be the trio’s only chance of surviving.
Review: Buzz for Salt to the Sea had already been building before I went to YALLFest last November, so when I spotted the ARCs that were available at the event, I was ecstatic. I like to think that I only gasped slightly, but I’m pretty sure that the reality was closer to a very audible squeal.
Alas, I still haven’t read Ruta Sepetys’s much acclaimed Between Shades of Gray (Ally has, though!), but her excellent 1950’s New Orleans-set Out of the Easy compelled me to pick up Salt to the Sea without hesitation. I tend to read historical fiction with medieval, Regency, or Victorian settings, but Sepetys’s skill at recreating the time period for Out of the Easy impressed me so much, I believe that she could write about any historical era. Out of the Easy also drew me in with its richly drawn characters, which is key to holding my attention whenever I read fiction that doesn’t have a paranormal/fantasy/dystopian element to it.
And so I went into reading Salt to the Sea feeling confident that I would be completely gripped by its story even though ordinarily, I’m not particularly drawn to World War II historical fiction. But therein lies the magic of Sepetys’s prose: her storytelling fully immerses you in the time and place she’s writing about. The chaos and destruction that war brings are made all too real here. You can’t help but feel for three of the main characters—Joana, Florian, and Emilia. Their lives have been shattered, their families have been torn apart, and their chances of escaping the absolute hell they’re living appear very slim throughout the novel. The three are essentially caught between the Nazis on one side and the rapidly advancing Soviet troops on the other, and every step the trio takes toward possible escape aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff could be their last. Fear, danger, and desperation pervade the pages, yet there are also a few stolen moments of hope to counterbalance the bleakness a bit.
The multiple POV narration works extremely well here, and the convergence of the story lines is both seamless and for the most part, quick. There’s compassionate Joana, who fled her native Lithuania four years ago and whose medical training has made her the de facto nurse of the group she’s traveling with; Florian, originally from East Prussia and a former restoration apprentice who’s seen firsthand the extent of the Nazis’ theft of Europe’s art treasures; Emilia, a fifteen-year-old Polish girl whose well-intentioned father sent her to live with friends in East Prussia where he’d hoped she would be safe but instead she’s been through unimaginable horror; and Alfred, a German sailor who firmly holds to Nazi ideology and who has delusions of becoming a great war hero. Sepetys develops her secondary characters just as much as her primary ones, too. The elderly gentleman whom the rest of Joana’s group calls “the shoe poet” because he used to be a cobbler and has a knack for making deep, philosophical observations is particularly endearing. There’s also little Klaus, found only with an address on a piece of paper pinned to the front of his coat. The shoe poet becomes like a grandfather to the boy, and their relationship is one of the most touching aspects of the book.
Salt to the Sea is an incredibly powerful, moving story, the type that you’ll still be thinking about long after you’ve read it. It will also absolutely break your heart, but it’s a story that needs to be read—and remembered.
All in All: This is a stellar work of historical fiction. The print ARC has an afterword on the actual events that inspired the novel (my guess is that the finished book will, too), and though not long, it, too, was an interesting read. Salt to the Sea is a compelling book from cover to cover, and I definitely need to read Between Shades of Gray soon.