Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys will be published on February 2, 2016 by Penguin.
Below is a must-watch video of Ruta Sepetys describing her book. Many thanks to Penguin Teen for providing it.
The first thing I want to say is that I do not believe I can actually do this wonderful, beautifully haunting book justice with my review. I read it so quickly (in just over a day) because I couldn’t put it down. It was written for a young adult audience, but I firmly believe that adults would enjoy it just as much, if not so much more than young adults. I’ve read and enjoyed many works of WWII historical fiction, including (to name my favorites) The Storyteller, The Nightingale, and Sarah’s Key, but this book is now at the very top of my favorites list.
This isn’t just another WWII historical fiction based upon the Holocaust, but instead it is about a little-known disaster which affected over 10,000 people as they tried to desperately leave war-torn homelands in a race for survival. Much like the Holocaust, the sinking of the Wilhem Gustloff is horrifying and devastating. Unlike the Holocaust, however, history has chosen to keep this disaster quiet, even though it is the single greatest maritime disaster in history, much larger in terms of lost lives than the Titanic or the Lusitania.
Here are the facts: The Wilhem Gustloff, a former cruise ship, set out into the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea on the evening of January 30, 1945. The ships capacity was 1,463, but there were actually 10,573 passengers on board. Of these, it is estimated that there were over 5,000 children. Other large groups of passengers on board included injured German soldiers and pregnant or new mothers with infants. The ship was equipped for 22 lifeboats, but only 12 were actually on the ship when it set sail. Around 9:15 PM, about 25 nautical miles offshore, the Wilhem Gustloff was struck by 3 Russian torpedoes and completely sunk within 1 hour after being hit. A total of 9,343 people perished, either on the ship or floating in the dark, icy waters of the unforgiving Baltic Sea.
It’s very clear that the author extensively and thoroughly researched the historical events retold in the story. She stayed true to historical fact. There are author’s notes and research & sources sections at the back of the book which are interesting and also heartbreaking to read. They give details from actual survivors, as well as stories from family members of those who didn’t survive the tragedy.
The pace of the book is quick, with short chapters, switching back and forth between 4 different young character’s points of view. Joana, a young nurse from Lithuania, Emilia, a young Polish girl, Florian, a young Prussian art restorer and forger, and Alfred, a German sailor with high regard for himself, but little regard for others. Each of these young people have a past haunting them and a future completely based upon trying to survive the war and evacuate before it’s too late. Their paths cross on the way to the Wilhem Gustloff. All but Alfred have suffered great loss at the hands of Hitler and the war. The characters are all from different nations, youth who have had to leave everything behind and suffer great loss, though they held no part in causing such catastrophe and strife. Joana, Emilia, Florian, along with an old shoemaker known as Poet, a 5 year old orphaned boy named Kraus, a blind girl named Ingrid, and a large, loud woman named Eva form a makeshift family, as they stick together on their way to the port. Each has only a tiny shred of hope, but together they are capable of loving and caring for one another, even when they thought they had nothing left to give. The relationships between the characters is heartbreaking, real, and so very beautiful. I will never forget them or their stories.
I cannot say enough about this wonderful book. I would encourage you to read it and pass it on to as many people as you can, so that those affected by this tragedy are never forgotten. As Ruta Sepetys says, “When the survivors are gone, we must not let the truth disappear with them. Please, give them a voice.”