Salt to the Sea - Book Review
UK Publisher: Puffin
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, not culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people aboard must fight for the same thing: Survival.
This book was one emotional rollercoaster after the other, but as heart-wrenching as it was, I absolutely loved it! A beautifully written story that offers a haunting glimpse into the journey undertaken by thousands of refugees in 1945, it follows the lives of three people as they travel across wintery Prussia in the hopes of escaping to a better life.
Joana is a nurse running from the horrors of her past. Florian is man on a deadly mission. Emilia is a tragic girl without papers. When the three cross paths in the snowy hills of Prussia, they form a reluctant band of travellers that together, face many perils. It is a journey not everyone will survive…
One thing that really came clear through the prose was the research the author put into this story. Through the eyes of her characters, Ruta Sepetys brought the world of 1945 Prussia to life, sharing with us the horrors of the war and the injustices suffered by so many. Yet she also revealed the kindness of others, such as the bonds that formed between the refugees, how they shared food and cared for each other, forming friendships to the point that new families were created from the heartbroken survivors.
Yet while many of the events in the book are both sad and horrifying, they were portrayed in a way that the reader could resonate with and understand, tastefully written without being all blood and gore. Also the small details and facts weaved through the story were interesting as much as they were shocking. However like all good historical fiction, this book accomplished the great feat of subtly teaching without the reader ever being aware they are learning—something I think is doubly impressive considering this book was written for teens.
What moved me most about this story however was the attention it drew to the largest maritime disaster in history, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gosloff. Before this book I knew nothing about either the ship or the thousands of people who tried to escape to fairer shores on her, and I feel it’s a tragedy that should not be forgotten. Almost 9000 people, half of which were children, died in one night.
Ultimately though this is a fictional story, and I thought the plot moved at just the right pace. Each chapter was told from the view point of one of the main characters, with each of their secrets and histories revealed bit by bit as the book progressed. Admittedly due to the change in POVs, it did take me several chapters to get into the story, especially as in the beginning things were a little confusing until you learn a little more about who each character is. However this didn't take away my enjoyment of the book and I soon found myself immersed.
The characters I loved most though were the secondary ones. The old shoe maker and the little boy really moved my heart, along with the blind girl and bossy “I’m sorry” woman. Despite being made up, they each had very distinct personalities that really helped bring this story to life.
All in all, Salt to the Sea is a tragic, eyeopening yet beautifully written book that will stay with you long after you turn the last page. Thought provoking, emotional, and a great tribute to those whose lives were touched by the war. 5 stars!