Author: Ruta Sepetys
Publisher: Philomel Books
Release Date: February 2nd, 2016!
*I received a physical ARC of this from the nicest person ever, Brian.
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.
My Review!As soon as this arrived on my doorstep, I couldn’t wait. I HAD to read it. Between Shades of Gray is one of my favorite books, and I love stories set in World War II. I’m not normally a fan of historical fiction, but when it comes to WWII stories, I need them. And I knew this would be a phenomenal book. Of that, I had no doubt. I just didn’t realize how completely and thoroughly it would destroy me in the process. Told in the perspectives of four very different people, Salt to the Sea explores an event that has been almost completely forgotten.
There is Joana, a runaway from Lithuania. She was able to repatriate into Germany and become a nurse because of her heritage, but she feels so much guilt over leaving her family. It’s something that she carries with her, and it’s something that makes her even more determined to live. To survive. She’s a brave, intelligent woman who will do whatever she can to help people, no matter who they are or what they’ve done. She has so much compassion for others, and so much willpower to keep going, to keep walking. She doesn’t want to look back anymore, but she can’t ignore the guilt that grounds her.
There is Florian, a Prussian thief with secrets. He’s both cold-hearted and warm, both kind and mean. He’s a complex individual who you can’t be sure of throughout the story. His motives seem to be self-serving, and yet, he does unspeakably nice deeds for people. For the ragtag band of escapees he meets on the road. For the young girl he saved from a dangerous soldier. He’s carrying something that would see him killed, and he’s only got one goal in mind: freedom from the hold Germany has on him. Freedom from a past he can’t let go of. His single-minded purpose is something that turns him stoic and silent, while his begrudging willingness to help is something that brings more humanity into a character who seems to just be out for himself.
There is Emilia, a teenager faced with a heavy burden. She was my favorite character, this young lady who moves forward day after day, no matter what she goes through. This girl who finds the strength to smile, to hide behind a lie so she can continue putting one foot in front of the other. This girl who puts everyone to shame, with her sheer determination and bravery in the face of hardship. I admired her character so much, and her story just absolutely broke me. Yet, her fierceness made me smile, because she was not giving up the fight, even when she desperately wanted to. I adored her so much.
And there is Alfred, where all I can say about him is: fuck you. I’m actually glad we had his POV because it showed a different side than the others. It showed the tragedy through the eyes of a Nazi, a soldier who believed in Hitler and shared his ideals. But I hated his character for obvious reasons.
Over the course of the story, you will feel a thousand emotions. Anger, sadness, happiness, pain, joy, rage, disgust. It is a truly heartbreaking story, but one that is also so full of courage and hope. Of small acts of bravery and kindness that will leave your heart aching because of the humanity in the story. Of death, too. For in a land ravaged with war, not everyone will make it out alive. This book follows the lives of four people, who are so different from one another, who are all keeping secrets, but who have one common goal: survive. And through it all, they (minus Alfred) become a force, a team. They become almost like a family, one that will look out for each other, even in the face of disaster. It was something so beautiful to see, people from all manners of life finding care and happiness and love together.
This isn’t an easy book to read. What happens, how the characters survive… What they go through is chilling to read about. This book haunted me. These character haunted me. There were so many moments that made me want to just sit and cry for days, because it hurt so fucking much. The war was not kind to anybody, heritage be damned. But through these three MAIN characters, we also see what humanity is capable of in such times. What willpower and a steady heart can accomplish. What bravery looks like in the face of certain death. What a simple act of kindness can do to change someone’s life. What it’s like to smile when you don’t think you can anymore. What it’s like to hope when you’re continuously beaten down and about to give up. I will never know what it was like to live during the war, to be hunted because of my heritage, to be killed because of who my parents were. I will never know what it is like to live in fear. And I thank God for that, because I’m not so sure I’d be as brave as these characters.
But with books like these, and Between Shades of Gray, I can be safely transported back to a time that seems long forgotten (even though it isn’t to a lot of people). This book doesn’t make light of what happened, or of what the war was like, and of what it took to survive. And it’s a story set a few weeks before a majorly catastrophic event that has faded from the history books. To be honest, I don’t remember much about what I was taught in school, but I’m almost 100% certain I’d never learned about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. It was eye-opening, and something that made me cautious going into this because HELLO IT’S OBVIOUSLY NOT GOING TO HAVE A HAPPY ENDING! But I couldn’t stop reading. And I spent a good five minutes after I finished this emotionally-charged tale sobbing my eyes out. Because I had so many feelings, and I needed to let them out.These characters burrowed themselves deep into my heart and won’t let me go. I’m still thinking about this book. I’m still affected by it, more so than I had been after reading her other WWII novel. And I think that’s exactly what the author had been going for. Because this isn’t something that’ll leave you that easily (unless you are, like, dead inside), and it’s something that’s not only important to read, but WORTH the inevitable disaster you know is coming. Salt to the Sea was a gorgeously written novel that follows four teenagers as they leave behind their pasts in the hopes of better futures.