Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Philomel Books, 2016
Salt to the Sea, set in 1945, is the story of four teenagers from different backgrounds swept up in the chaos as refugees stream through Prussia trying to escape a Soviet advance - and head straight for the Wilhelm Gustloff, soon to be the site of one of the greatest maritime disasters in history. There's a love story, several stories of survival in horrible circumstances, some wonderful friendships and found families - and a suggested solution to one of a famous mystery of art history, for good measure. Ruta Sepetys has written two previous young adult historical novels - I'd recommend Between Shades of Gray, especially - but I think this is her strongest one yet: thoughtful and action-packed, haunting and tragic and life-affirming.
As you'd expect from that description, there's a lot of intense stuff going on in this novel, and Sepetys pulls it off. It's very, very powerful. (I should probably mention that, since this is about war, there are discussions and depictions of all the violence and horrors that involves, including rape.) I don't cry over books particularly frequently, but this one had me struggling not to openly weep on a plane in front of dozens of strangers. It sounds terrible and calculating to say this, but in fiction about something terrible - like a war or a shipwreck, actually - there's a fine line to walk: You make your readers care about your characters who will be involved in this tragedy, and most writers are loathe to then kill all these characters off. How many get another ending, and how realistic and how happy can that ending be? While there were a few plot points toward the end that struck me as a little too tidy, I thought overall Sepetys did a fine job of dealing with this.
Going in, I was a little worried about the perspective switches - point of view rotates between four characters, often switching after just a page or two - but the voices were distinct enough that it wasn't a problem, and I wound up really liking the way the voices wove together, both in showing these events from different perspectives and in building up an increasingly thick layer of dread as disaster came closer. I had my favorite characters, of course, but I never found myself hurrying through a chapter trying to get back to a character I cared about, as I sometimes do with multiple POVs (*cough* George R.R. Martin *cough*), and even when I was slightly less into a particular story at a particular time, I appreciated the way the points of view created such a full, multi-faceted world for the novel.
Salt to the Sea can definitely stand on its own, but at the same time, I'm the kind of reader who always wants more historical context. I'm reasonably well-versed in the basics of World War II, but don't know a lot about this specific time and place, and often wished I could look up exactly what was going on as the characters were mentioning various things. (I probably would have except, as I mentioned, I read this on a plane, so was dealing with the text pretty much in isolation. Which was probably both good and bad for my experience of the book, in various ways!) The book did have a map, which was helpful, but I wanted more.
That's a small quibble, though. Salt to the Sea is beautifully written, tragic without being tragedy porn, illuminating one specific, important moment in history while meditating on universal questions of patriotism and family and love and survival. Bring your tissues and be prepared to keep thinking about this book long after you finish reading.
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