Winner of the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award 2016 (US Mid-South)
“‘Poorly made shoes will torture your feet, inhibit your progress. Then you will stop.’ He squeezed my arm. His soft red face peered out from beneath his hat. ‘And then you will die,’ he whispered.”
Following on from Ruta Sepetys’ previous historical fiction set in World World Two (Between Shades of Gray) Salt to the Sea follows four young people from different countries who ultimately board the ill-fated Wilhelm Gustloff in the Winter of 1945. There are many brilliant, though harrowing, accounts of World War Two but what sets Salt to the Sea apart is the little known tragedy at its heart: the refugees from across Europe and the sinking of a ship. Impeccably researched and unflinchingly told, Sepetys’ takes the reader on an emotional journey through a disappeared country, East Prussia, and into mostly forgotten parts of history.
The story, laid out in very short chapters, is divided between four narrators: Joana, a nurse from Lithunia, Florian, an apparent deserter from East Prussia, Emilia, fleeing Poland, and Alfred, a committed German Nazi sailor. From the beginning, the driving cold and the threat of Russian soldiers forces the unlikely group of refugees onward, deeper into the forests of East Prussia and deeper into their own fears. Each narrator opens with the feeling of being hunted, whether it be from guilt, fate, shame or fear, and it’s this idea of escape, both physically and emotionally, that pushes the story on and keeps the pages turning.
At times relentless, the bitter journey is lightened by sparks of kindness, of friendships forming and even romance. Sepetys uses a light touch, deftly combining historical accuracy with emotional heart. I cared what was happening to these people, what fate awaited them, who, if any, would survive the impossible.
Stories like these are as important as ever. As Sepetys asserts in her Author’s Note:
“When the survivors are gone we must not let the truth disappear with them.”
The truths in Ruta Sepetys’ Salt To The Sea are harsh, brutal and terrible. They’ve haunted me since finishing the book. But the fact that I never knew them before is perhaps the most shocking to me. Ignorance is a hunter too. Get your best boots on and walk with these refugees on a path to a little more understanding.