Everyone knows about the Titanic. And everyone knows about the Lusitania (read Dead Wake if you don’t). But, what about the Wilhelm Gustloff? The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is the “deadliest maritime disaster in history”. So, why don’t we hear more about it? Over 9,000 people were killed in the disaster, an estimated 5,000 of them being children.
In Salt to the Sea, Sepetys tells the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff through the eyes of 4 young refugees who have come together in one way or another to make the trek to the coast to flee the Russians and be taken to Germany by boat. Joana: a nurse’s assistant, carrying a secret guilt about what happened to her family when she left Lithuania 4 long years ago. Guilt is a hunter. Florian: an art restoration apprentice on a mysterious errand, and carrying a secret in his backpack. Fate is a hunter. Emilia: a young Polish girl, terrified and alone, running for her life. Shame is a hunter. Alfred: a young Nazi-in-training who recites letters of self-grandeur in his head to a girl back home. Fear is a hunter.
Just when you think this war has taken everything you loved, you meet someone and realize that somehow you still have more to give.
What I Liked:
- The alternating points of view between the characters. I usually like this form, but in this case it really showcases the interactions between a group of strangers who are trying to make it out of a terrible situation. They want to be able to rely on each other, but it is hard to know who to trust.
- That this small group of refugees are from vastly different backgrounds and experiences, yet so much the same.
- The characters are young. Not so much because it shows how capable and brave young people can be, but also because it shows the reality of so many young people during the war, or even now; they are alone, and have to rely on themselves.
- One of the narrators believes in the Nazi cause. This gets us inside the head of a Nazi, so we can get a look at some of Hitler’s ideas. It also illuminates a striking comparison between his character and the others.
- The other characters in their small group of refugees: Eva, Ingrid, the Shoe Poet, and the Wandering Boy.
- The diversity in their group highlights the fact that your circumstances during the war could make the difference between life and death; Ingrid’s blindness, Emilia’s heritage, the Shoe Poet’s age. Together the group finds ways to help each other make it through.
- The mystery of the Amber Room. The Amber Room is a work of art (a whole room made of amber) that was stolen by the Nazis during the war. No one has been able to find it since. But… if you read this book, then you’ll know what really happened… (The Amber Room has since been reconstructed, taking 24 years and costing $11 million.)
This book is written in a way that makes reading about WWII accessible for young people; it’s quick and engaging with young, interesting characters. Yet, the subject is weighty and the author doesn’t hold back the gory details. One of the narrators is a girl only a year older than my daughter – it is a huge eye-opener to compare yourself to someone who has led such a different life. (For me, imagining that girl as my daughter was heart-rending.)
Despite the fact that the intended audience is YA, I hungrily read the book in a couple of sittings and learned a few new things about WWII. Sometimes, in YA, the characters can get on my nerves, or the story will seem too simple for me, but I didn’t find either to be the case in this book. It’s a good book for any age. Now to convince my daughter to read it…
*Thanks to the publisher for providing me with a copy of this book for review!
This is Ruta Sepetys‘ third book. Her first, Between Shades of Gray, is also a WWII story. Both books were inspired by Sepetys’ family history and her father’s story as a Lithuanian refugee. I think I will have to read her first book, too.
When the survivors are gone we must not let the truth disappear with them.