Thursday, March 17, 2016

Review: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Title: Salt to the Sea

Author: Ruta Sepetys

Information on series: Stand Alone

Audience: Young Adults (with appeal for adults)

Rating (scale of 1-10, with 10 being highest): 8

TL;DR: A beautifully written, character-driven novel about a little known WWII tragedy that should appeal to a wide range of readers.

Longer review: World War II often seems like a topic that has been explored from every possible angle, its many tragedies and horrors well mined by every imaginable media. And yet, every year some new book or movie comes along and proves that there are still new stories and perspectives to explore.

In Salt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys explores an aspect of World War II that I was completely unaware of: the German evacuation of Prussia, Poland, and the Baltic region and (mild spoiler) the deliberate sinking of refugee ships by the Allied forces. In fact, you might want to warn readers that this is a grim read, characters you care about will die, and (larger spoiler) one character was raped before the story begins. The rape is by no means explicit, but neither are the consequences for the character inconsequential.

That said, this is still a Young Adult novel, so readers shouldn't expect all out grim horror. I might not have had the emotional strength to finish this book without some hope of light at the end of the darkness, but (HUGE SPOILER) I still found the romantic aspect to the ending a bit jarring. It was by no means poorly done, just harder for me to swallow from the perspective of adulthood. But before you write this novel off, let me assure you that the romantic aspect is a relatively minor subplot.

The real focus of Salt to the Sea are the characters' stories. Each of the four narrators have secrets that have led them to the doomed Wilhelm Gustloff, which adds to an already suspenseful story of survival. It's fascinating to watch how the narrators' paths cross on their journey toward what seems like their best chance at safety. I was particularly charmed by the mirrored language between the characters, especially in the first and last chapters.

The chapters are often only a few pages long, which only increased the speed at which I was turning the pages. A 400 page book is not a small commitment, but I was very happy to give up my Saturday to this one. I highly recommend this book to any teen or adult with an interest in World War II, the current refugee crisis, or historical fiction in general.

Read alikes:

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys: Ruta Sepetys's highly-regarded first novel highlights another lesser-known story of WWII, the deportation and Arctic imprisonment of thousands by Stalin. Like Salt to the Sea, it has great appeal for teen and adult readers alike. There is also a small Easter egg for those who read both books.

The Watch that Ends the Night by Allan Wolf: Allan Wolf uses multiple perspectives to tell the story of the Titanic's fateful voyage. Wolf's writing is more poetic than Sepetys's (free verse), but the engaging character perspectives and maritime disaster make this a solid read alike.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows: Shaffer & Barrows's well-loved novel about the German occupation and its aftermath on a small British island during WWII was definitely written for an adult audience, though it's likely to have appeal for some teens. Like Sepetys, the story draws attention to a lesser known aspect of WWII while making good use of multiple narrators.

~Sarah, Carnegie-Stout Public Library

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