Monday, June 19, 2017

Review: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Title: Salt to the Sea
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Publisher: Philomel Books
Publication Date: February 2, 2016
Format: E-Book

Page Count: 393


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. (taken from

“Just when you think this war has taken everything you loved,
you meet someone and realize that somehow you still have more to give."

This is one of those books that I really picked up on a whim. It came available at my library, and I shrugged as I checked it out. I'd always read good things about it, and even a year after its release date, it's still got a strong rating on GoodReads.

The first 50 pages or so confused me quite a bit. The point of view constantly switches, and you barely have time to understand who is speaking and what is happening before you're whipped into the next narrator's chapter. My guess is that Sepetys is trying to convey the confusion and disconnectedness of war through this storytelling method, but honestly, it made me take longer to really get into the book. Finally, the characters come together, and I rubbed my hands in glee thinking, "Oh yeah, now it'll get really good."

I don't often read historical fiction, but when I do, I always enjoy it. Perhaps I should be giving it a shot more often. Sepetys does a neat job of folding historical accuracy into her story. I found myself double checking facts or researching towns that she mentioned, and to me, that is a sign of a well-written historical novel.

I have read several World War II novels before, but most of them focus on Jewish families or concentration camps. Sepetys' novel, on the other hand, focuses on refugees who have not been captured. Her characters are German, Polish, and Latvian, and it was interesting to read about their differences and their pasts. I think it is easy for us to forget the huge scope of World War II and the millions of people who were impacted by political invasions and violent battles. Sepetys covers a large range of topics, from Hitler's obsession with stealing famous art pieces to the issues of class differences in Germany.

Obviously, the book's most predominant historical reference is to the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, which apparently was the largest shipwreck in known history. It was difficult to learn about the characters and their struggles, knowing all the while how things were going to end. Still, if you're fearing a tearful and unsatisfactory ending, then take heart in knowing that Sepetys weaves a little bit of a happy ending into the tragedy.

The story wasn't stellar, in my opinion. There are really not any huge reveals or inventive plot ideas. However, I don't think the point of this novel was to wow audiences with an original story. It was to document the fears and struggles experienced by many real people decades ago. Sepetys' characters helped her to tell the story she hoped share, and I am glad to have read Salt to the Sea because I have learned more about an influential time and event in history.

This is definitely not a lighthearted read, so maybe don't pack this one in your beach bag or anything. If you are in the mood for a sober (and saddening) look at history, then I do suggest that you give Salt to the Sea a shot at some point. It's well-written and informative, and you'll finish the novel feeling as though you've really spent some time in the shoes of WWII survivors.