Title: Salt to the Sea
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Publisher: Random House (2016)
Genre: YA, Historical Fiction
# Pages: 400
VERDICT: A compelling page-turner that shines light on the horrific tragedies experienced during war through characters that call out to the deepest parts of humanity.
Why I Chose This Book: I am familiar with Sepetys from reading Between Shades of Grey (which is conveniently mentioned on the cover), but primarily the cover image caught my eye, reminding me of Titanic. I’m also a slight historical fiction fanatic (at least, in the YA category), so reading about one of the biggest unknown catastrophes of WWI is right up my alley.
“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.”
What I Thought: A clash of emotions flooded me while reading this book: compassion, horror, heartbreak, intrigue. It was a brutally honest look through the viewpoint of many victims of war, even those we may not typically associate as victims. Don’t we all lose in the end, anyway?
Because I found this book while perusing the library shelves, I did not have any background knowledge as to how the book was set up. The back cover copy sounded interesting, and as I said, the overall premise suggested by the front cover image made me think of Titanic–and nothing makes for a better story than the threat of demise of millions stuck on a ship. (Some of my deepest fears stem from tragedies beyond my control, like being on a plane that is crashing or a ship that is sinking in the middle of the ocean.) Had I realized the structure of the text structure alternated between multiple viewpoints, I might not have been so eager to read the book. The first couple of chapters were rough as I tried to remember each character’s back story and keep track of their relational ties, but as each character’s back stories were revealed and their voices became more distinct, this became less of an issue. (Additionally, each switch was announced at the top of each chapter–this made it a lot easier for me than trying to simply figure out who was the focus of each chapter (not the case in my next review, The Infinite Sea, but that’s another story for another time).
The story was historically compelling, rich with details and references pulled the reader into the time. The characters were well rounded, each harboring their own secrets while trying to put their best poker faces on to make it to freedom. The scenes were well-crafted and the chapters were short and easy to read.
When I initially read this event occurred during World War II, I worried about a central focus of Hitler, the Holocaust, and all of the typical events discussed. These topics were mentioned in passing, but the main focus was on other little known occurrences, such as the stealing of artwork (and the reproduction of false works) and the treatment of civilians by Russian soldiers. I must say, I was disappointed by how little of the story actually took place on the ship. Typically, the title is indicative of what the story holds–though in fairness, how much action could occur on a ship that is taken down by the enemy shortly after departure? (Sorry for the spoiler, but really, with a life-ring as the cover image, you must have some idea what is coming.) I suppose I expected the loss of the ship to be a middle event, then follow a survivor after the fact–even if they had simply seen the ship sink and lose so many passengers, the effects on them afterwords would have been tremendous.
All in all, the book was a riveting read–I would recommend it.