Did you know that the worst disaster in maritime history occurred seventy-one years ago this month? On January 30, 1945, nine thousand people, mostly civilians, more than half of them children, died during the sinking of the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff, as they attempted to escape the Russian invasion of East Prussia. Originally built for leisure cruising, the ship was grand in size (two hundred and eight meters long, fifty-six meters high), with a capacity of 1,463 passengers, and was only eight years old when it was destroyed by three torpedoes launched from Soviet submarine S-13. Nine thousand dead–a much larger death toll than the Titanic and Lusitania combined–and yet this tragedy has been largely forgotten…until now.
In Salt to the Sea (February), Ruta Sepetys brings to light and humanizes this tragedy. If you’ve read Between Shades of Gray (2011) and Out of the Easy (2013), you know Sepetys writes remarkable historical fiction. But sometimes even well-crafted historical fiction can be a bit boring if it relies too heavily on research and doesn’t include well-developed, relatable characters.
What makes Salt to the Sea a page-turner is that it is told in the alternating voices of two young men and two young women whose lives converge during this horrific time. The diverse cast of narrators–a Lithuanian nurse, Joana, a pregnant Polish girl, Emilia (who must hide her nationality from the Germans), a Prussian forger, Florian, and a German soldier, Alfred–have distinct personalities and backgrounds (as well as secrets that haunt them).
Salt to the Sea is more than a depressing WWII story about the plight of refugees. It is about our ability to love and remain hopeful even during times of extreme suffering and cruelty. It is about our need for books that personalize history. As Sepetys states in her author’s note:
Stories of war are often read and discussed worldwide by readers whose nations stood on opposite sides during battle. History divided us, but through reading we can be united in story, study, and remembrance. Books join us together as a global reading community, but more important, a global human community striving to learn from the past….When the survivors are gone we must not let the truth disappear with them. Please, give them a voice.
Alyssa devoured this book in one day during a not-so-major blizzard on January 23, 2016. (Only six inches of snow in Witch City, USA.) She thanks Edelweiss and the publisher for providing her with a digital review copy of Salt to the Sea for review purposes. Please note that any quotes are based on an uncorrected text and may have changed upon publication.