The author of Between Shades of Gray returns to WWII in this epic novel that shines a light on one of the war’s most devastating—yet unknown—tragedies.
In 1945, World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia, and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, almost all of them 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 toward safety.
Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.
I finally read a Ruta Sepetys book, and it was exactly the gut punch I have been led to expect.
Salt to the Sea is about four people with their own secrets and goals trying to survive during a very difficult time. It’s told in short, quick chapters through sparse-but-beautiful writing, and sheds light on a piece of World War II history not often discussed. It’s well-researched and character-driven and very very painful. (The real salt here is my tears, okay?)
I was incredibly impressed with this book. It flowed really well; the short chapters made it very difficult to stop reading. The characters were well-developed and I loved the way their backstories were gradually revealed. The writing is deceptively simple, but effective–I can’t count how many times I read a certain sentence over and over because it made me feel a little bit empty inside.
Basically, Salt to the Sea is my first five-star book of the year, and I encourage you all to read it. The sheer brutality of the world can be difficult to get through at times, but it’s incredibly worth it.
The epilogue was rather abrupt and rushed (it didn’t help that, at least in the version I had, there was no indication of the time skip or the fact that it was an epilogue until several paragraphs in) and left several questions unanswered. I would have liked…more pages? more of a transition between the book and the epilogue? I’m not entirely sure, but something about the way the epilogue connected didn’t work for me.
I loved the way this book was written, both in terms of the actual writing and the structure. Ruta Sepetys shows that sentences don’t need to be flowery or descriptive to be beautiful–sometimes, a plain, brutally honest punch to the heart does the trick. Meanwhile, the short chapters and often-alternating point of view made it very, very easy to say, “just one more chapter, it’s three pages, what harm can it do” and then end up, um, finishing the whole book. The chapter length keeps the pace of the story up and amplifies the intensity of the events.
Initially I was worried that the short chapters would make it difficult for me to connect to the characters, but that was not the case at all. If anything, it made me love all the different POVs more; unlike other POV books, there wasn’t one character I preferred reading over the others or wanted to skim over. All four characters were complicated and human, and one of the things that kept me hooked on this book was the slow reveal of information about their pasts and motivations. I loved Joanna’s courage and protectiveness and compassion, Florian’s determination, Emilia’s selflessness and struggle to find hope after everything she’d been through. As for Alfred, the young Nazi soldier with a capacity for self-delusion to rival Queen Levana’s, I don’t know if I’m more surprised by the fact that I managed to feel pity for him during most of the book, or by how much I ended up fearing and hating him. Either way, huge A+ to Ruta Sepetys for her amazing characterization of all the protagonists and quite a few secondary characters.
Ruta Sepetys did her research with this book, and it shows. She never shies away from the ugliness of the situation, but the book can be hopeful too, shedding light on the capacity to survive and kindness and courage of ordinary people. And given how many World War II books there are, I’m glad this one focuses on a story many history books have forgotten.
Pick this up when you’re in the mood for something to put your emotions through the wringer.