Title: Salt to the Sea
Genre: YA, Historical Fiction
Publisher//Year: Philomel Books// Feb.2, 2016
Synopsis: Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.
Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.
As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.
Yet not all promises can be kept.
Inspired by the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, bestselling and award-winning author Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray) lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II. An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope.
I discovered what event this book was about not long after first hearing about it and immediately pre-ordered it. The plot of this novel centers around an event from World War II that very few people learn about it school; I only learned about it in a history class geared toward upper-class History majors like myself. After learning about it, I wonder why more people are not taught about this or even talk about it in general.
If it sounds like I’m being cryptic it’s because I am.
I’m hesitant to say what exactly what the event is because I don’t know if going into the novel not knowing about the event in question would change the experience of reading it. For me, going in knowing what historically happened was kind of like watching Titanic – you know what’s going to happen and you spend the film anticipating it. If you care to know about it, it’s about the Wilhelm Gustloff and the Wikipedia article is here.
Knowing about the event or not, it doesn’t change the fact that novel is 70% build-up. You spend a great deal of time getting to know the characters, their backgrounds, the relationships between them and then throwing them into this thing in the climax. That build-up is not strictly exposition. It moves very quickly – partially from the short chapters and constantly changing POV. The chapters are from one of our four characters – Joana, Florian, Elena and Alfred – and they honestly read more like a monologue. They’re each told in that characters First Person POV and gives you a snapshot of their mind and thoughts. They call other characters by private nicknames, they reference secrets yet to be revealed. One character in particular writes mental letters to his “girl back home”. I can see where some would find it annoying; I thought it gave a different perspective to events of the novel, particularly when deal with a narrator with a definite bias. More on that little so and so later.
The cast of characters are from different areas of Eastern Europe and gave a perspective that, again is not one that – at least in my experience – is talked about much in the US education system; Florian and Alfred are German, Joana is from Lithuania, Elena from Poland. It allows for the stories to be told from different perspectives and does not gloss over the horrors experienced by so many during WWII (and not only those perpetrated by the Nazi Army). There’s a wonderfully eclectic cast of supporting characters – including the “Shoe Poet” who I must give a shout-out to because I adore him so. It’s a ragtag group fleeing from the oncoming Soviet Army and you really get a chance to get to know them all and showcase the way that they all come to rely on one another. There’s also a romantic subplot between two of the characters that I really enjoyed – it kind of snuck up on me and I thought it was sweet and more than a little adorable. I got really attached to all of the group in question and it made everything that they go through together – and believe me, it gets pretty dang harrowing at times – that much harder and more emotional.
And then we have Alfred.
He’s the one I said I’d talk about later.
He’s a full-on, true believer Nazi who’s story, at least at first, is told separate from the rest of the characters and I really disliked him. And it’s not just his point of view that’s offensive – I mean, it is; he has a little song about all the people thought to be undesirable by the Nazis that he sings all the time and no, I am not kidding – but he’s also annoying. Even if he wasn’t a Nazi, he would be annoying. And it’s not his mindset that I found of view that I dislike – being a Nazi does not a bad character make – but he really comes off standard villain, not quite one-dimensional but not as detailed as everyone with as much prominence in the story. His development is static and his background and even his physical description are revealed much more slowly than the rest of the characters. By the time we got his background, I already hated him so much that I didn’t care and it just fueled my dislike. I have a feeling it meant to, but I really DID NOT LIKE HIM. He’s honestly the only thing that I didn’t like about this book and it affected me enough that I altered a rating of a book I otherwise adored. And I am 100% certain that I am the only person who feels this strongly about this.
Also – as I was setting up this review, I made the discovery that one of the characters does cross-over with another Ruta Sepetys novel, Between Shades of Grey, also set in Eastern Europe during WWII. I haven’t read that novel and I don’t know if this book would spoiler the other, but I thought it was worth mentioning.
TL;DR: Salt to the Sea is a very emotional and potentially eye-opening and informative YA historical fiction