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Salt to the Sea Hardcover – February 2, 2016
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From School Library Journal
Gr 8 Up—With the same lyrical prose, eye for detail, and breath-stopping ability to unfold delicate layers of characterization and theme with skillfully paced revelations, the author of Between Shades of Gray (2011) and Out of the Easy (2013, both Philomel) presents a fictionalized World War II story based on a true tragedy. In alternating narratives, four different teens grapple with the bitter cold, the ever-present danger of falling bombs, and their own dark secrets. There's Joana, a pretty and empathetic Lithuanian nurse who harbors a heavy guilt; Florian, a mysterious young man struggling to hide his true identity; Amelia, a pregnant Polish girl; and Alfred, a sociopathic Nazi sailor with an inferiority complex. Along with a fully realized cast of secondary characters who comprise the small band of refugees slowly making their way through the frozen and battle-scarred Prussian countryside, Joana, Florian, and Amelia are determined to get aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German military ship evacuating civilians and wounded soldiers at the tail end of the war. Alfred, meanwhile, a low-ranking officer stationed aboard the ship, avoids work by hiding in the toilets, composing imaginary and boastful letters to a girl back home. Each voice is distinct, and Sepetys unwinds their individual backstories slowly and with care. As the relationships among the refugees strengthen and they begin to trust one another, vulnerabilities are revealed—some of them life-threatening. Observations of war and loss, human cruelty, and hatred are unflinching. But through the horror and heartbreak shine rays of hope: love, kindness, courage, and sacrifice. VERDICT Artfully told and sensitively crafted, Sepetys's exploration of this little-known piece of history will leave readers weeping.—Kiera Parrott, School Library Journal
Praise for Salt to the Sea:
"Ruta Sepetys is a master of historical fiction. In Salt to the Sea the hard truths of her herculean research are tempered with effortless, intimate storytelling, as her warm and human characters breathe new life into one of the world's most terrible and neglected tragedies." —Elizabeth Wein, New York Times bestselling author of Printz Award Honor Book Code Name Verity
“A rich, page-turning story that brings to vivid life a terrifying—and little-known—moment in World War II history.” —Steve Sheinkin, author of Newbery Honor and National Book Award finalist Bomb
"Brutal. Beautiful. Honest." —Sabaa Tahir, New York Times bestselling author of An Ember in the Ashes
* "Sepetys excels in shining light on lost chapters of history, and this visceral novel proves a memorable testament to strength and resilience in the face of war and cruelty." —Publishers Weekly, starred review
* "This haunting gem of a novel begs to be remembered, and in turn, it tries to remember the thousands of real people its fictional characters represent. What it asks of us is that their memories, and their stories, not be abandoned to the sea." —Booklist, starred review
* "Artfully told and sensitively crafted, Sepetys’s exploration of this little-known piece of history will leave readers weeping." —School Library Journal, starred review
"The inevitability of the ending (including the loss of several characters) doesn't change its poignancy, and the short chapters and slowly revealed back stories for each character guarantee the pages keep turning. Heartbreaking, historical, and a little bit hopeful." —Kirkus
"This book includes all the reasons why teens read: for knowledge, for romance, for amazing and irritating characters. This novel will break readers’ hearts and then put them back together a little more whole." —VOYA
"Sepetys’s...scene-setting is impeccable; the penetrating cold of the journey is palpable, and she excels at conveying the scope of the losses while giving them a human face....[T]his elegiac tale succeeds with impressive research, affecting characters, and keen, often unsettling insights into humans’ counterposed tendencies toward evil and nobility. Readers will be left to discuss which impulse triumphs here." —The Horn Book
Top customer reviews
One mention of such an immense tragedy.
I’m thankful to Ruta Sepetys for writing SALT TO THE SEA. I always enjoy historical fiction that introduces me to something I didn’t know before, which she certainly does. But more than that, the author has such a deft, confident hand that I could sense the amount of research she did and the respect she has for the survivors and victims of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Sepetys doesn’t overwhelm you with her knowledge, but inserts it subtly, weaving it into the backstories, thoughts, and actions of the characters.
SALT TO THE SEA is told through the eyes of four characters. Joana is Lithuanian, a nurse who always wants to help people in need, even if helping them might place herself in danger. Florian is Prussian, a boy with a pack of secrets. Emilia is Polish, a girl on the run from unspeakable horrors. Alfred is German, a member of the Kriegsmarine, and loyal to Hitler’s every thought. By using characters of different nationalities and loyalties, the author is able to show the many sides of Operation Hannibal, when Germany evacuated soldiers and citizens ahead of the Red Army.
The “chapters” in the book are short, often 2-3 pages before hopping to another character. For the first few chapters, this bugged me a bit, as I couldn’t get to know anyone with such short chapters. Then I got used to it and liked the short chapters, because the sparseness was more impactful than overloading me with details would have been.
SALT TO THE SEA is one of those rare books that I’ll be thinking about for a while.
There are four points of view telling the story of Salt to the Sea, and each is distinctive, secretive, and profound. We have Emilia, a young Polish girl of fifteen who has faced untold horrors of World War II, and is saved early on by the "knight", Florian. Florian has a major secret of his own; he is carrying something very valuable and is trying to get away to safety while simultaneously exacting revenge on those with whom he worked. Distracting Florian, however, is the young nurse, Joana, a Lithuanian who is leading a rag tag group to the safety of a ship leaving Germany now that Hitler has deemed it all right in the final months of the war. Finally, there is Alfred, a young sailor in the German navy who "writes" letters in his head to his love, Hannelore, while avoiding work and planning a dazzling future.
Though these are the voices we hear, there are so many others involved and each one will wrap themselves around your heart, in particular the Shoe Poet and the Wandering Boy who are assisted in getting on the liner Wilhelm Gustloff along with the others. They are stunning examples of man's inhumanity to man and yet the power of hope and the determination to survive. Sepetys gives them lives that represent so many more who experienced as much trauma or even worse.
So much happens that you will find yourself wanting to totally inhale this story, but make yourself slow down and feel the ache of hunger, the biting cold, the long walks, the deceptions and the triumphs. Sepetys has done her research meticulously and it shows in every word. I cannot rate this one highly enough and I urge you to read it and remember it.
First featured on NPR's Morning Edition, this fictional novel serves as window to a time that highlighted humanity's race to escape from itself. Ruta Sepetys alternates between different perspectives in a way that makes the story visceral - you can feel the anxiety and terror of refugees as they stream towards a harbor, towards a ship that will most definitely not be able to carry all of them to safety - will they be able to board? Or will they be denied passage, cursed to wait for the advancing troops and a more certain fate?