Salt in the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Published by Penguin
Published on February 2016
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Young Adult
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The author of Between Shades of Gray returns to WWII in this epic novel that shines a light on one of the war's most devastating—yet unknown—tragedies.
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, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.
Have you ever heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff? Well neither had I. It was a ship that sank in 1945, packed full of German refugees fleeing Russia’s advance as the Reich fell. It is estimated that 9,000 people died when modified cruise ship was sunk by Russian torpedoes.
The Wilhelm Gustloff was pregnant with lost souls conceived of war. They would crowd into her belly and she would give birth to their freedom. But didn’t anyone realize? The ship was christened for a man, Wilhelm Gustloff. My father had told me about him. He had been the leader of the Nazi Party in Switzerland.
He was murdered. This ship was born of death.
Ruta Sepetys gives a Titanic-like narrative of the tragedy, giving us enough time with the characters to love them before the tragedy unfolds. The story is told through four perspectives, a young Lithuanian nurse, a younger polish girl, a young German man on a mission, and a delusional German soldier. They are vibrant characters, with true depth and distinct personalities. The story is driven by their struggle to reach the port where they can sail out of the Russian Army’s reach, but even more compelling are the secrets they each hold. Their journey is brought to life through the masterful use of perspective employed by Sepetys. Rotating through the characters only a few pages at a time, the story reveals the hardship of refugees desperate to survive in harrowing circumstances.
The depth of research put into the accuracy of the depictions is astounding. It was, as a whole, a vivid peek into the lives of people living in 1945 through the final months of World War II from a perspective rarely seen. I haven’t read a lot of historical fiction recently, but this book was absolutely fantastic.
This story will never leave me. It is so powerful and moving, and the characters live on even when you’ve finished the last pages.
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