Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys, was published in 2016 by Philomel.
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.
The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is the greatest maritime tragedy in history, with approximately 9,400 people dying after the ship was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine. And prior to reading this novel, I had never heard of it.
During World War II, when both Stalin and Hitler (two of the deadliest men in history, behind Mao Zedong of China) were committing horrific atrocities in Eastern Europe, thousands of refugees from Poland, the Baltic States, and Prussia fled to Germany (and beyond) to escape the Russian army advance. Ruta Sepetys depicts the journey of four fictional characters, but her thorough research and own family history means that what lies within the pages of Salt to the Sea is as real and as historical as any nonfiction account of the same story.
At first, the jumping between characters is a little jarring and makes the story feel disjointed, but as more and more is revealed and as each character comes alive on the page, that disjointedness completely disappears. Each character has been affected differently by the war due to their differing backgrounds and Sepetys deals with all of these backgrounds and characters well—although I do wish slightly more had been done with Alfred (though maybe the glimpses and hints we got are all we need).
My favorite character was probably Emilia, because Emilia embodies the essence of selflessness and self-sacrifice. Her story is the most heartbreaking, which perhaps make her sacrifice on board the ship all the more profound.
Salt to the Sea is best experienced through reading it, and no review that I write can adequately describe the experience I had while reading it. It’s a must-read for those who like WWII history, and it’s a must-read for those such as I who had very little knowledge about what on in Eastern Europe during WWII and especially of such a disaster as the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Sepetys is one of the best historical fiction writers for young adults that I know of today.
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult
“You’re right—Polish. Her name is Emilia. She’s fifteen, from Lwów. But she has no papers.”
“Where’s Lwów?” I asked.
“In southeastern Poland. The Galicia region.”
That made sense. Some Galicians had blond hair and blue eyes like the girl. Her Aryan look might protect her from the Nazis.
“Her father is some sort of math professor and sent her to East Prussia where she might be safer. She ended up working on a farm.” Eva lowered her voice. “Near Nemmersdorf.”
“No,” I whispered.