Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
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 determines how we remember history and which elements are preserved and penetrate the collective consciousness? If historical novels stir your interest, pursue the facts, history, memories, and personal testimonies available. These are the shoulders that historical fiction sits upon. When the survivors are gone we must not let the truth disappear with them. Please, give them a voice.”
For so long, I have been recommended/ heard absolutely great things about it and so last year, I finally bought Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. And there it sat on my shelves because from what I had read, it was amazing but it was also agonizingly sad and I wasn’t quite ready for it. However one fine day last month, I finally read it in a little over 3 hours because this one will not let me go.
This book touches on a disaster and a tragedy that I was not really aware of. Known as the greatest maritime disaster, that of Wilhelm Gustloff. I absolutely love it when historical fact and fiction are blended so well that the end result is simply breathtaking. I say breathtaking because I lost my breath crying my freaking heart out by the end.
“There’s a saying, ‘Death hath a thousand doors to let out life; I shall find one.’ But the children. That’s what I struggle with.’ He shook his head. ‘Why the children?”
This book follows four characters (Joana, Emilia, Florian & Alfred) as they are trying to find freedom on one of the ships during WWII. As I said, I wasn’t quite ready for the heavy and frankly, depressing story about to unfold in front of me but once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. Part of the reason is accessible writing and the other part is short chapters. We all have that failure of a habit called ‘one more chapter’. Well, with this one you only once you are finished with it.
The main POVs and side characters truly made this book into an utterly memorable book for me. From Joana (a nurse) who lives with the guilt of her own to Emilia who has suffered untold horrors but still sees the good in people to Florian who has regrets of his own and no matter how hard he tries he can’t quite distance himself emotionally from people. Then there’s Alfred, a young German soldier who struggles with being a good person on a daily basis. The old shoemaker, young Klaus and everyone else just makes for a richer story and makes your heartbreak harder at the end of it.
Obviously the ship sinks but its the journey of before and after of the characters that really mattered with this one. Weaving fact and fiction seamlessly while offering the young adult points of views who are individual and engaging is an absolute feat of great measure and I can’t wait to read Between Shades of Grey now.
This isn’t a happy story, obviously and many a time you would definitely tear up or flat-out cry but it still holds a few good (genuinely good) moments and optimism that astonishes and comforts at the same time. A must read for historical fiction fans, even if YA is not your genre.
(Over 9,000 people died in the Baltic Sea on January 30, 1945, in an attempt to evade the Red Army. The Wilhelm Gustloff was the largest shipwreck in history, but little is known about the catastrophe seven decades on.)