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Salt to the Sea Hardcover – February 2, 2016
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From School Library Journal
"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
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Winter of 1945. Prussia. Refugees and German civilians are fleeing because the Red Army is making a strong advance against Germany. It is clear that Germany has lost the war at this point, but is still hanging on. We all know why. Passage to safety is via the Baltic to West Germany. Everyone knows this and this is how 3 of our 4 characters meet, on this trek to safety. Each character holds a dark secret as they make their way to safe passage. The atrocities and mysteries of WWII follow each of these characters in one way or another.
Sepetys really took the time set up each character background and their motivations, but toward the end the book, she appears to run out of steam. Another issue is that one character really could have used more development and background. The first half of the book, up to the embarkment on the Wilhelm Gustloff is actually the best part of the story. However, the secrets of each character are revealed mostly while on the ship, and since we already know what is going to happen and how soon, there is not enough time for that development and it feels rushed. We know from watching Titanic that major plot developments can occur during the sinking of a ship, but that does not really happen here. Resolution, if any, feels incomplete. While the final few pages (an epilogue?) were just mind boggling and made absolutely no sense.
I would recommend this book. I studied WWII a lot in undergrad, and I find myself drawn to stories about or with women during WWII (no matter the country). So, if WWII is your thing, then despite its flaws, I found myself not wanting to put it down. The short chapters are perfect for working moms on the go, like myself, if you just so happen to find yourself with a pot of tea, five minutes, and in need of good book.
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.
Top international reviews
In a near-lyrical style, Sepetys tells the tragic tale of four children fleeing Stalin’s Red Army through Nazi territory, hoping to find salvation on-board an evacuation ship. The story is told from the viewpoints of the four main characters: Joanna, Emilia, Florian and Alfred, each haunted by some concoction of fear, fate, shame and guilt from their past. The characters feel painfully real, brought to life with a string of drip-fed details and subtle interactions. It is how these young souls try to come to terms with and explain the atrocities of an adult world that lend the words their power.
The personalities are as complex as the dark subject matter demands – for example, Alfred, a devout Nazi is easy to mock and hate. It was not until after finishing the book that I remembered his young age and realised that he is simply a lonely and troubled boy swept up by the wave of hatred that devoured much of Europe at the time. While this might not lead to forgiveness, it must surely lend itself to understanding. Aside from this main cast, the supporting characters are just as involving, with the love that develops between Heinz ‘the shoe poet’ and Klaus ‘the wandering boy’ often providing a brief respite from the lingering sense of doom.
The book is split into a series of very short chapters, some stretching to only one line. However, what they lack in length, they each make up for with the strength of their emotional gut-shots, conspiring by the end to leave you feeling pummelled and punch-drunk. The often soft and gentle prose seems almost out of place when describing such bleak scenes and emotions but somehow makes them all the more affecting.
The pacing of the book is very impressive. It starts off slowly and I must admit that having read the superb Carnegie-contenders The Bone Sparrow and The Smell of Other People’s Houses, I initially wondered how it had managed to beat them to the prize. However, as the pages flicked over I realised how effective the book was at evoking the tense monotony and boredom of war, the characters are constantly looking over their shoulders but with little to actually do other than trudge onwards and occasionally avert their eyes from the world’s assorted horrors. That being said, when the final action kicks off, the intensity of it is enough to leave you dizzy (I read the final 100 pages in a single stressful sitting).
Despite being a ‘children’s book’, I cannot think of another text that so matter-of-factly and brutally lays bare the desperation of war. Some of the scenes involving children at the port left me so overwhelmed with disgust I had to stop reading to compose myself (the only other book ever to make me do that is American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis). This is an important story to tell – based on an unbelievably forgotten history of a real-life event – but it is not an easy one to hear.
I love Supetys’ other novels, so I had very high expectations for this one, and it did not disappoint. The characters in this book are all so interesting and complex, that even though there are four different perspectives that change very frequently, I never felt the need to check the chapter headings. Even the secondary characters, some of whom did not have proper names, felt so unique and realistic that your heart ached for them as much as it did for the main characters.
The pacing for this book was definitely faster than Supetys’ other novels and I found myself flying through this book. You feel the urgency the characters do to board this ship and escape the horrific circumstances they have been dealt. I could easily have read this book in a day had I not had other things get in the way.
It is evident that Sepetys did an enormous amount of research for this book which completely paid off. The setting and atmosphere of this book was so bleak, you are instantly transported back to East Prussia in the winter of 1945. You felt the harshness of the winter, the urgency of the people to flee and to seek a better life, the hopelessness of their situation. Throughout the novel you are filled with dread as you are reminded what inspired this book and where it is headed, but that definitely did not take away from the reading experience whatsoever.
My favourite thing about Supetys’ novels is that, even with these bleak and horrific circumstances the characters are in, we still see the goodness of humanity and how the human spirit carries on in even the most dire of situations. I cried for half an hour after reading this book and I know it is one that will stay with me.
I had absolutely no idea about this tragedy before I read this book and was shocked it was not more well known. Even though the characters in this book are fictional, you are reminded that this was a real event in which 9,000 people, over half of which were children, lost their lives in one night. I urge you all to pick this book up and read it, so at last their story can be heard.
As with her two previous novels the protagonists are all teenagers, though the main difference with 'Salt to the Sea' is that it has four main characters instead of one, each from a very different background (one is German, one Lithuanian, one Prussian, and one Polish) offering divergent and illuminating perspectives of what WWII did to each of these nations. The narration-style switches between the first-person perspective of each of the four characters, which I found at first slightly disorienting, but once the story gripped me I didn't even notice.
Although the book is advertised as being primarily about the disaster that befell the Wilhelm Gustloff, the majority of the book takes place within Prussia, showing the plight of the fleeing refugees; the ship is the setting for the book's powerful climax. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone. It's historically accurate, it's beautifully written and fast paced, and the characters (as ever with Sepetys) are closely drawn and consistently believable.
The only reason I decided to give 'Salt to the Sea' four starts instead of five is because I felt it was lacking in something. Both 'Between Shades' and 'Out of the Easy' read as though they were stories very close to Sepety's heart; I didn't quite get that impression with this book. It felt more like a piece of history Sepety's was interested in novelising, but not necessarily one that she was intensely passionate about. Regardless, this book has been worth the wait and, as I said earlier, I would absolutely recommend it!