Title: Salt to the Sea
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Genre: Historical Fiction
Audience: Young Adult
Narrators: Jorgeana Marie, Will Damron, Cassandra Morris, Michael Crouch
Length: 9 hours (391 pages)
Publisher: Philomel Books; Penguin Random House Audio
Release Date: February 2, 2016
Content Warnings: rape/sexual assault, war, violence, death of loved ones
While the Titanic and Lusitania are both well-documented disasters, the single greatest tragedy in maritime history is the little-known January 30, 1945 sinking in the Baltic Sea by a Soviet submarine of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German cruise liner that was supposed to ferry wartime personnel and refugees to safety from the advancing Red Army. The ship was overcrowded with more than 10,500 passengers — the intended capacity was approximately 1,800 — and more than 9,000 people, including 5,000 children, lost their lives.
Sepetys (writer of ‘Between Shades of Gray’) crafts four fictionalized but historically accurate voices to convey the real-life tragedy. Joana, a Lithuanian with nursing experience; Florian, a Prussian soldier fleeing the Nazis with stolen treasure; and Emilia, a Polish girl close to the end of her pregnancy, converge on their escape journeys as Russian troops advance; each will eventually meet Albert, a Nazi peon with delusions of grandeur, assigned to the Gustloff decks.
This was a very compelling historical fiction book about an overlooked piece of World War II history: refugees in Germany fleeing from the Soviet invasion at the end of the war and the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustlaff. I had previously never heard of this tragedy even though it is the deadliest single ship sinking in maritime history.
The narrative is told in short chapters that alternate between 4 POVs. While each character comes from a very different background and was affect by the war in different ways, they were all running away from something and running to something else. The characters developed a tenuous trust as they traveled together, but tensions were always high because every had dangerous secrets.
This book portrays a stark view of the horrors of war with no time for people to process trauma while trying to survive. I think Ruta Sepetys does a fantastic job of making difficult subject matter accessible to young adult readers.