Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys will make you cry and will haunt you forever, in the best possible way. It’s a master piece, a gripping and beautiful story of hardship, humanity, loss, love and survival during WWII. This book is both heart-breakingly sad and hopeful at the same time, showing both the best and worst of humanity, and with so many wonderful characters you immediately fall in love with and want to rescue from the brutality and horror surrounding them.
The book takes place during the Winter of 1945 when four persons paths converge as they try to escape the horrors and survive the war and all the terrible things they have experienced. Joana is a Lithuanian nurse who struggles with demons for leaving her family behind, Florian is a German with secrets of his own and revenge on his mind, Emilia is a Polish teenager running from the betrayal and abuse she has suffered at the relatives who were supposed to keep her safe, and Alfred is a Nazi soldier with something to prove and a mind that works in a not completely sane way. There is also the sweet “shoe poet” Opi and the boy Klaus and other lovable persons in the small group of refugees travelling together, trying to reach the coast and get passage aboard a ship to safety and freedom.
The four main characters alternate in telling the story from their point of view, thereby sharing their secrets, backgrounds, hopes and dreams with us, if not to each other. The different POVs really add to the story and brings an extra dimension to story, spinning it around in all angles, and revealing the ever-changing dynamics between them. Three of the characters, and the side-characters, are lovely and make your heart go out for them and their hardship. I felt so so much for them and their struggles it kept me on needles to find out what would happen to them all. (The fourth, Alfred, is an idiot. Even if he can justify his actions to himself, no one else can. That’s all I have to say about him.)
The book is based on a true story, the sea evacuation Operation Hannibal and the sinking of the ship Wilhelm Gustloff. This is the deadliest disaster in maritime history, with Soviet torpedoes destroying and sinking the ship carrying nine thousand people, the majority being civilians (of which, about five thousand were children). The losses dwarf the death tolls of famous ships like Titanic, but yet, this disaster is almost unknown. Ruta Sepetys surely will make that change now. You can tell how much research and thought she has put into this story to inform people about this devastating tragedy.
The writing is exquisite in the face of such brutality. The way Ruta Sepetys told the story was just beautiful, how she created this weave through the different POVs and slowly, slowly revealing their secrets and reasons for their actions.
I finished the book crying my eyes out and my heart aching for the characters in the story, as well as the real lives they mirrored. It is a pretty intense book for being YA, but I cannot recommend it enough! This is one of the best books I’ve read and definitely the best historical fiction ever! Just be prepared to cry and to be hit by a tornado of emotions.
Find out more about the book and the author here: Ruta Sepetys