Salt to the Sea
Releasing on February 2, 2016
Rating: 5 stars
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.
Thank you to Philomel for the ARC and to Edelweiss for the eARC. All opinions are my own.
Sad Leo is me on the treadmill finishing this book earlier today. Yes, not the best book to read at the gym, but I just had to finish. Even though I knew the book description just screams TRAGEDY!!!!
But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m a sucker for WWII stories. It’s like how Samantha was my first American Girl doll because she and all her stuff was so pretty, but Molly’s story was the most intriguing to me. And this story (the first Sepetys book I’ve read, which I will need to remedy soon) brought in some new dimensions that I haven’t read about before. I did not really know anything about the Operation Hannibal, the sea evacuation that moved soldiers and civilians out of East Prussia to escape the oncoming Russians. As a kid, I fell in love with Wish Me Luck by James Heneghan, about the ship City of Benares. That book is out of print now, but if you were ever lucky enough to read a copy, you’ll see the connection.
The characters are what make this story. The four main characters are all different nationalities. Joana – Lithuanian. Florian – Prussian. Emilia – Polish. Alfred – German. They are all young, and they all have secrets. Sepetys did an amazing job of bringing the characters together and weaving their stories into each other. Instead of chapters, the book is written in short (sometimes very short) sections that rotate through the POVs. I fell in love with the characters – ok, not *all* of them, but most. Emilia, especially, was very observant, but also very dreamy. You got the impression that her culture and heritage made a huge impression on her childhood, but unfortunately, you only learn about that in small glimpses. She is a character I would have loved to spend more time with. I loved the language in her sections:
Who was this German boy, old enough to be in the Wehrmacht, yet dressed in civilian
clothes? For me he was a conqueror, a sleeping knight, like in the stories Mama
used to tell. Polish legend told of a king and his brave knights who lay asleep
within mountain caverns. If Poland was in distress, the knights would
awaken and come to the rescue.
(Raven Boys vibes, anyone?) Emilia observes and internalizes. Florian plots and plans. Joana follows her heart. Alfred fantasizes. And the side characters – the wandering boy, the Shoe Poet, Ingrid! They wormed their way into my heart.
I love that there are so many different characters to give you a breadth of experience for what was happening at the time. It gives you an idea of what different nationalities and classes were facing. At the same time, I feel like there’s still a lot I would still like to know about each of these people. Like we just didn’t have enough time together (btw, this is a stand-alone book). But then, maybe that’s the point. It is a wartime book. Time is precious and people are fleeting. You just have to take what you can get. Sometimes you get a life story. Sometimes you share a brief, humanizing moment. Sometimes you just run out of time. This book takes those moments and just breaks your heart over and over again.
Really though – give this book a chance. Let yourself fall in love with these characters. I promise you’ll get through it ok. If you need someone to cry with, you know where to find me.
If you liked the idea behind the movie The Monuments Men (if not the execution), read this. If you read the MG book Under the Egg, and enjoyed it, then read Salt to the Sea. Or if you like Salt to the Sea, go back and read Under the Egg. Both involve stolen Nazi treasure – always a juicy topic.