I was so bowled over by Ruta Sepetys’ first novel, Between Shades of Gray, that I gave it to my teen cousin for her birthday (she likes historical fiction), and she went crazy over it, too. So, when I heard that Sepetys had another historical novel coming out, also set in the World War II time period, I pre-ordered copies for both my cousin and me. We were both blown away by Salt to the Sea, a powerful, moving novel about a virtually unknown historical event that affected many thousands of people.
Salt to the Sea follows four young people, all in their mid- to late teens, in 1945 as they each make their way across East Prussia to the port of Pilau, Poland, to hopefully board a ship and be evacuated away from the rapidly advancing Russians. Each of the main characters is introduced gradually, through alternating chapters. Joana is Lithuanian but has been living in East Prussia, working as a nurse, for the past four years. She is leading a small ragtag group of refugees cross-country to the coast. Florian is a bit of an enigma for much of the novel. He is Prussian but is clearly in fear of both the Russians and the Nazis. Florian comes across Emilia, a Polish girl of only fifteen, who is on her own and in dire danger from a Russian soldier when Florian finds her. They tentatively join Joana’s group for a while, while their wounds heal, though Florian is obviously anxious to be on his own again. Alfred is about the same age as the others but in completely different circumstances. He is serving in the German navy, proud to be a Nazi, and currently assigned to the port, helping to prepare several large ships for evacuating both citizens and wounded soldiers.
The story centers on one particular evacuation ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, that was a real historic ship, though few have heard of it. In fact, its sinking was the deadliest disaster in maritime history, killing approximately 9,000 people, mostly civilians and about 5,000 of them children. For comparison, about 1,500 people died when the Titanic sunk. As the author explains in a note at the end of the book, this was just one of several huge evacuation ships destroyed in the Baltic Sea at that time, killing approximately 25,000 people total, mostly civilians. Yet, we never hear about these disasters in history class.
The novel expertly weaves these four young people’s stories together to create a picture of the desperation felt during those frantic months, while people tried to escape from the advancing Russians. This is not a military story of war but a tale of ordinary people, trying to save themselves, their children, and their families. Some were Polish, some Lithuanian, some Prussian, some German, but they were all in the same desperate circumstances, all rushing toward the port cities in the bitter winter weather, trying their best to find food and shelter and stay warm and alive.
As the novel continues, the four main characters’ lives continue to intersect in sometimes surprising ways. I always enjoy novels that focus on connections between people like that. We also learn more about each of the individuals as the story progresses, and there are plenty of surprises along the way. There is even a little link to the characters in Between Shades of Gray, a wink to readers who enjoyed that first book. All of that intricate story-telling is set against a fascinating historical backdrop that most of us alive today can’t even begin to imagine that will be particularly shocking for teens readers of about the same ages as the main characters.
The result is a fast-paced, suspenseful, emotionally powerful tale of survival against all odds. As with her first two novels, Sepetys is a talented writer who immerses you in the lives of the characters and makes them feel real. I came to care about each of them (well, most of them) and was rooting for them to survive and thrive. The entire novel is a page-turner but the last part, once they board the ship, is especially tense and riveting. Sepetys has done it again, with a powerful, engaging novel filled with characters who feel real, set against a little-known historical event that deserves to be recognized.
378 pages, Philomel Books (imprint of Penguin Random House)
P.S. I mentioned two of Sepetys’ novels here, Between Shades of Gray and Salt to the Sea, because they both take place in roughly the same time period and focus on little-known but important historical events. However, Sepetys wrote another novel, in between these two, that was also very good. Out of the Easy is set in 1950’s New Orleans, about a teen girl whose mother is a prostitute.