Friday, February 26, 2016

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys - Book Review

Grades 8 and up
Teen/Young Adult Military Historical Fiction
Publisher: Philomel Books, February 2, 2016
400 pages
Format: Hardcover
Source: Amazon
My Rating: 5/5

Book Summary from
World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, many 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 to 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.

Told in alternating points of view and perfect for fans of Anthony Doerr's Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See, Erik Larson's Dead Wake, and Elizabeth Wein's Printz Honor Book Code Name Verity, this masterful work of historical fiction is inspired by the real-life tragedy that was the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloffthe greatest maritime disaster in history. As she did in Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys unearths a shockingly little-known casualty of a gruesome war, and proves that humanity can prevail, even in the darkest of hours.
My Thoughts:

First I have to honestly acknowledge that as a U.S. History teacher the Wilhelm Gustloff is something that I knew very little about.  This event is typically overshadowed by some more well-known maritime disasters like the Titanic and the Lusitania.  This novel really brings this lesser-known story to a generation that needs to know about it.

Additionally, the author gives readers a rich historical education on the time period and perspectives (German, Polish, Lithuanian, etc) without the reader even realizing it because it is so beautifully and emotionally presented through the characters.  This book is unique in that it really puts the refugee perspective of this time period in European history front and center.  Having the novel told from different perspectives as a reader I really got a sense of the varying sides approaching this event.  

The author did a phenomenal job balancing the characters evenly and although it took me about half of the novel to really get a good handle on who was who, once I did they became my long lost friends from a different era.  I became heavily invested in their stories, especially sixteen-year-old Emelia who delivers a baby girl while on board.

I appreciated that the author spent most of her time in the novel bringing the characters to the event and although the sinking of the ship is what is most well known of this story it was not the center of the novel.  Her attention to historical detail is impecable and reliable, something that as a history teacher is important to me as I use books in my classroom or recommend them to young people.

I left this book just sad but that does not influence my overall appreciation for this novel and its author.  When I experience those heavy emotions as a reader that is the tell-tale sign that the author has done his/her job.  Kudos to Ms. Sepetys on this novel, it is definitely a keeper on my home bookshelf.