Salt to the Sea
by Ruta Sepetys
It is the winter of 1945. Four teenagers of different nationalities, each with their own dangerous secrets, converge onto the same path as they fight to get aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German cruise ship used for military transport, which many believe is the path to safety and freedom. Along the way, these teenagers must suffer through many tragedies and cruelties. And they must also learn to face the dark secrets that plague them.
The history this book is based on is quite fascinating and might be useful to know before reading it. The story of the Wilhelm Gustloff is not well-known, but it is one of the greatest maritime disasters to ever occur. In January 1945, the Soviet advance into East Prussia led to the mass evacuation of German troops and civilians from the area. The Gustloff was to evacuate German soldiers, but it began accepting refugees until its passenger count was several thousand over what it was designed to hold. On January 30th, the day it set sail, the ship was hit by three torpedoes and subsequently sank over the course of one hour. Approximately 9,000 passengers were killed, almost six times the death toll of the Titanic.
This book is written very simply, in short, but not choppy, sentences. Rather than detracting from the story, however, as may often be the case, this simplicity allows the story to speak for itself and also lends a certain poise to it.
Salt to the Sea begins in the middle of a story already in progress. All the events that have led the four teenagers to the current situation have already occurred. This creates an air of mystery, especially since the reader knows that the youths have secrets that have never seen the light of day.
The story rotates between four different first person perspectives, one for each character. I liked this approach because it lets the reader see the characters from three different viewpoints, resulting in a fuller construct of each character’s personality. Each chapter is quite short and slowly builds each character by revealing a bit more information every time, leaving the reader hungry for more and eager to read on.
One aspect of the story I believe is intentionally highlighted is the fact that the teenagers are at once different and the same. They are the same in the sense that they each carry a great burden that threatens to tear them apart, and they must confront it before they are consumed. They are different because their burdens are not of the same kind. Each burden shapes each character into a different person. In the end, however, they are all seeking the same thing – safety from the terrible events that are taking place as a result of the war. The author skillfully brought all these factors into play and artfully interwove them, creating a poignant story.
This book is rated for grade 9 and up, but I would recommend it for older readers. There are no inappropriate scenes or use of language, and no graphic, gory descriptions, but the theme is quite mature. It is a complex tale of the trials, suffering, and cruelties of war and of the relationships that are forged during these times. In addition, there is a heaviness and sense of foreboding prevalent throughout the book. This is a book well worth reading, and I am pretty certain all will enjoy it.