For readers of Between Shades of Gray and All the Light We Cannot See, international bestselling author Ruta Sepetys 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. Told in alternating points of view, and perfect for fans of Anthony Doerr's Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See, Erik Larson's critically acclaimed #1 New York Times bestseller Dead Wake, and Elizabeth Wein's Printz Honor Book Code Name Verity, this masterful work of historical fiction is inspired by the real-life tragedy that was the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff--the greatest maritime disaster in history. As she did in Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys unearths a shockingly little-known casualty of a gruesome war, and proves that humanity can prevail, even in the darkest of hours. 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
Salt to the SeaFeatured
While Joana, Emilia, and Florian have stories full of heartbreak and sorrow, the fourth, Alfred is best described as putrid. The more I read in his point-of-view, the more creepy he became. He is the epitome of a young man who, in his own mind, is special and it is everyone else who is wrong because they are unable to see it. He is entitled and lazy, finding a myriad of ways to avoid the work required of the other soldiers. He becomes infuriated when others do not recognize how wonderful he is. There is an extra, shiver-inducing, layer in his "letters" to a young woman at home that he was clearly obsessed with and who, expectantly, did not share his feelings. The fact that I am writing this almost a month after reading the book and still want to strangle Alfred myself is a testament to what a well written character he is.
There are several scenes that were difficult (especially as a mother) to read. These usually involved children. There were some heart-wrenching moments for our main characters and their friends, but also a number that happened in the background, in a mere line or two, and had nearly as much impact. The story is told through the eyes of our four main characters and each of the sections is rather short. This keeps the plot moving quickly and allows each character's secrets to be revealed slowly. I was, however, a little disappointed in the ending. It didn't seem as developed as it could have been and was overly sweet, given the circumstances.
Bottom Line: Recommending this book for all my historical fiction fans.
Salt to the Sea is told from the point-of-view of four different teenagers, each with a secret. There is Florian, a disillusioned Prussian art restorer; Joana, a clever and determined Lithuanian nurse; Emilia, a young Polish girl struggling for hope in a world that continues to betray her; and Alfred, a young Nazi sailor desperately seeking recognition.
I am going to pause here, because you may be nervous about the same thing I was during Alfred’s first chapter — namely, is this book going to attempt to make me sympathize with a Nazi? The short answer is no. I’m not going to say Alfred’s chapters are easy to read — on the contrary; Alfred is an infuriating character, what you would get if you took Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice, aged him down a bit, and handed him a copy of Mein Kampf. And while Salt to the Sea never tries to make the reader sympathize with Alfred or make excuses for him, some readers may not be able to stomach reading his toxic and hateful inner monologue. Only you can decide whether you can handle reading from the POV of a Nazi (and a sniveling, lazy Nazi at that), and I won’t try to change your mind if you don’t think this is something you can do. All I will say is that Alfred’s chapters do contribute to the narrative as a whole, and neither the stakes nor the tension would be the same without his perspective.
However, as much as Alfred is The Worst, the other characters balance the scale. Joana was probably my favorite, a wonderful combination of resourceful, smart, kind, and brave. (Joana also ties into Between Shades of Gray, for those of you who have read both books.) But they all had their moments. Emilia is kind and sweet, but with an underlying determination and selflessness that, on several occasions, took my breath away. And then there is Florian, reserved and secretive, yet motivated by a quiet nobility that kept me rooting for him throughout. I was so very invested in the fates of these three characters that I find myself still daydreaming about them days after finishing.
As for the story itself, I was surprised to find that the characters don’t even board the Wilhelm Gustloff until the second half of the book. (Perhaps I would have been more prepared for this had I realized that the Gustloff was only scheduled for a 48-hour trip, not a weeks-long voyage like the Titanic. So it makes sense that most of our time getting to know the characters happens before they reach the ship.)
The first half of the book chronicles the long trek of the refugees through the snowy countryside on their way to the port (or, in Alfred’s case, his preparations to sail). The journey to the ship is harrowing, as the characters are constantly trying to avoid both German and Russian soldiers, while also staving off frostbite, dehydration, and malnutrition. On the way, there are several horrifying incidents that show the terrible price of war, and even once they reach the port, the descriptions of the refugees are gutting. Sepetys thankfully never lingers on any single gruesome image for long, but through her careful descriptions and meticulously crafted sentences, you get a thorough mental image of the squalor, desperation, and terror of the characters and their surroundings.
Then there is their time on the Gustloff, cut tragically short by the sinking. Since I don’t want to get into spoilers, all I will say is that even though I knew the ship was going to sink, it was still devastating to read about. I was invested so deeply in the characters that watching them go through such an awful experience — no matter their personal outcome — was heartbreaking, and I spent the last chunk of the book reading through tears. It’s one thing to know about a tragic historic event; it’s another thing to experience it. Salt puts the reader right on the deck of the sinking ship, making us feel the panic and terror of the passengers, the biting cold of the water, the hopelessness of the death all around them, and, in spite of that, the steely resolve to keep struggling for survival.
As in her previous books, Ruta Sepetys’ prose shines, instantly transporting the reader to the world of her characters. Some authors struggle to convincingly juggle multiple points-of-view, but that is not the case in Salt to the Sea. Each of her four main characters has a distinctive voice and way of thinking which makes them easily distinguishable from one another. Also, the chapters are very short, with most lasting only two or three pages, so you never have to wait long to hear more from your favorite character. The brief chapters make that mental nudge to read “just one more chapter” easy to indulge, making this an incredibly swift read.
Salt to the Sea is a beautiful tale of a forgotten tragedy, set during one of the darkest periods of our history. It is respectfully and meticulously researched, but never feels like it’s working too hard to educate; instead, it sweeps the reader up in its vivid characters, gorgeous prose, and compelling storytelling, and if we are more historically knowledgeable by the end, that just feels like a bonus. One may expect a tale like this to leave the reader with a sense of despair, but although the story is full of moments of horror and death and unspeakable devastation, it balances them with moments of friendship, love, sacrifice, heroism, generosity, and kindness. In spite of the bleak time in which it is set, and the disastrous event that serves as its centerpiece, the Salt to the Sea ultimately manages to be hopeful, moving, inspiring, and immensely satisfying.
What worked: This is one heart-wrenching powerful tale of the lives of four teens thrown together during horrific situations. War is ugly, painful, and carries many secrets. Sepetys doesn’t hold back with scenes that are haunting and gut-wrenching. I’m not usually a fan of multiple points of view but in this case it works. Each character shares the ugliness of war and how it impacts his/her life.
This story isn’t only a historical novel but one filled with intrigue, suspense, and even some romance. I didn’t know the history behind the German ship the Wilhelm Gustloff or the tragedy that occurred that fateful day in 1945. Ten thousand people boarded that ship, mostly refugees fleeing the Russian army. Thousands perished. You can tell the author did her research. I love history but this story isn’t one filled with dry ‘facts’ but puts a human face on an event.
Beautifully written, this story keeps you turning the pages. I felt as if I was a part of that journey. You feel their hope, discouragement, and even get a glimpse of possibilities and love. Each character is fleshed out with vulnerabilities like Florian’s secret which involves stealing something. Even Alfred has some quirks that show his weaknesses that don’t totally make him unlikable.
Powerful, heart-wrenching tale of survival during a horrific event beautifully written.
During the harsh winter of 1945, four teenagers brace the violent cold and the threat of the Great War coming to an end, for the hope of a better life. But each teenager, born to a different homeland and hunted, hides a devastating secret. As thousands of desperate refugees descend on the coast amid a Soviet advance, four paths converge, each vying for a passage aboard the ship Wilhelm Gustloff, the last hope for safety and freedom. Inspired by the greatest maritime tragedy of the 20th century, this novel is an enlightening tale of hope and love during a shockingly little-known casualty disaster of World War II.
(Minor spoilers below)
This was the first Ruta Sepetys book I have read and it definitely won’t be my last. Dub me a life-long fan right now because Salt to the Sea was a masterpiece that was impossible to put down. I did not intend to read this book; I happened to stumble upon it when I was visiting my local library to borrow books for an interstate vacation. I borrowed the novel on a whim and could not be happier (I think I should starting borrowing books on a whim more often now).
Historical novels are my passion – I love learning about different cultures, different people and their experiences that have shaped world history. World War II was a tumultuous point of history that I find both fascinating and disturbing. I have never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff sinking and I don’t think many other people have, which is unfortunate. For those who don’t know the story, the Wilhelm Gustloff was a German military ship that was sunk by a Soviet submarine torpedo in the Baltic Sea. The ship was evacuating German civilians, Nazis and military persons from Gdynia in Poland, while the Red Army advanced. The ship was intended as a cruise ship, but was repurposed during the war. The ship had a capacity of 1,465 people, but 10,582 were shoved on board. Out of the 10,582 people on board, there were only 1,252 survivors.
So, based on these devastating facts, you can already guess that this book will be heartbreaking and it certainly was, not just through the events it was based upon, but also through Sepetys’ skill of characterisation. The characters were the heroes and the heart of the novel. The book is set from the perspective of four very different teenagers who derive from diverse backgrounds. The POV shifted between each character’s distinct voice which added a sense of realism to the novel and heightened my reading experience. I came to care for these characters and grieve with them as if they were real, not just the events the book was based upon.
My favourite character was Joana, the independent and intelligent nurse who becomes the designated leader of a group of refugees. She was so loyal to the unfortunate souls who found themselves under her care, and she cared deeply for everyone, leaving no one behind, even the weakest who would be a detriment in wartime. She was selfless and I felt an emotional connection with her that I have not felt for a female character in some time.
Florian was the most fascinating character out of the foursome and I looked forward to each of his chapters. At the beginning of the novel, he was this angry, frightened war-torn mess of a young man who is living life on the run. He was desperate and unwilling to form attachments, but by the end of the novel, he became an entirely different person. Sepetys executes a brilliant piece of character development that has the reader empathising and falling for Florian. His background was specifically interesting for me, as it revolved around the highly secretive art plunder the Nazi’s undertook during the war. I don’t know much about the theft committed by the Third Reich, but Sepetys elaborated on it perfectly, so much so that, once I finished the novel, I started researching the Amber Room and famous works of art still missing today. Read all about the Amber Room here and some missing artworks here.
Emilia was a touchingly beautiful character who I just wanted to bundle up in my arms and protect. Despite her young age and the fictional world she lived in to cope with the horror of what happened to her, Emilia developed into a powerful and strong young woman who managed to finally stand up for herself.
The character I struggled the most with was Alfred, and I’m sure everyone who has read this book would agree. At the beginning of the novel, I thought he was a Nazi of importance and in a position of power. But that was just a delusion. He was one of the most dedicated Nazis and was incredibly devoted to the cause and the Nazi’s messages. If he were a real person today in the 21st century, he would undoubtedly be one of those domestic terrorists you hear about on the news who go on a killing spree at high school. That is the best way to describe him. There were times I really felt for him and the way he was treated by others, but by the time his secret was revealed, I despised him. Sepetys is such a skilled writer to make my feelings for a character fluctuate so much.
Salt to the Sea was a beautiful and touching novel about one of the worst events in modern history. Despite the powerful content, Sepetys has really created a story about hope and heart, and how one can, despite the terror they experience, still persevere and live.
Four strangers meet trying to escape Germany in 1945, trying to book passage on the Wilhelm Gustloff, and trying to make sense of a world gone mad.
During my read-through, I could feel the cold and hear the crack of ice. The book gives enough historical setting and facts to set the scene, but lets the characters and their stories take the lead. We see the good and the bad in humanity, and of course most are in-between. This story is tragically beautiful, which I’m sure won’t come as a surprise to most.
I’m done with WWII fiction for the next few months at least, but I’m so grateful the ones I tried were worthwhile and impactful.
- A fresh, if tragic, angle on WWII fiction.
Also, just realized Lina (Joana's cousin) is the MC from "Between Shades of Gray". That was nifty.