guilt, fate, shame, + fear // salt to the sea by ruta sepetys #bookreview

photo by me.
Yet amidst all that, life has spit in the eye of death. - Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
As a history and young adult fiction nerd, I am always on the look-out for amazing and realistic YA historical fiction. So when I saw Ruta Sepetys (whose novel Between Shades of Grey I read a year or two ago) had published a new novel this year and that my library had a copy, I pretty much had to read it. Salt to the Sea is a harrowing story set in Germany in the middle of World War II and follows four young people connected to a passenger-turned-refugee ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff. What you should know before reading is it's incredibly sad and true-to-life and there are secrets, but there's also hope. Basically, have a hankie handy (especially if you're an emotional reader) and trust no one. 
Each of the main characters is haunted by something: for Joana, a young Lithuanian nurse, it's guilt for leaving her family behind and maybe surviving; for Florian, a Prussian apprenticed artist, it's fate because it is only a matter of time before the secrets he carries bring death; for Emilia, a beautiful Polish orphan, it's shame at the truth behind her circumstances and who she's become; and for Alfred, it's fear, something he, as a Nazi soldier, shouldn't feel, can't feel even. It's 1945. Joana, Florian, and Emilia travel with a group of refugees across Germany, seeking passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, where Alfred is convinced he's fulfilling his duty to the Third Reich. The Russians are coming and Germany is crumbling and a little-known maritime tragedy (which isn't a spoiler since it's mentioned in the blurb) is about to unfold.
First off, I appreciate a World War II story from all these different perspectives so much! In my opinion, it's important to hear voices from the other side (aka not the Allies) and it's important to realise not everyone in Germany was a Nazi (unless you're Alfred, because that kid was hard-core and so, so messed up). Also, brownie points to Ruta Sepetys for shining light on the Wilhelm Gustloff tragedy, something I had no idea happened. I love learning things while I read historical fiction. Salt to the Sea is incredibly well-researched, hence it screams authenticity. (Yay!)
How Sepetys managed four different narrators with such different cultural backgrounds and viewpoints is amazing. I admit it's a bit disorienting at the beginning, but once you get into it you almost know which character is narrating without reading their name in the heading. Backstory is revealed in little bits throughout the book, but I didn't mind piecing things together. It felt more natural that way. I can't really say much about the characters' different plotlines without giving spoilers, but Emilia was my favourite and Alfred is so, so annoying in a sad way because how many other kids grew up as brainwashed?
The eventual tragedy hurt all the more because you know from the start that it's coming and you can't do anything except watch it unfold. My heart is bruised, but it isn't broken. I think it could have been had Salt to the Sea not kept me a little emotionally distanced. Like, I was interested, but I really, truly wanted to go inside the soul of the story. Unfortunately, for me, this didn't happen. (But I am a bit of an unemotional reader, so that could be part of the reason.)

If you're a fan of historical fiction and want something to terrify and sadden you with its reality, definitely give Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys a go. You'll come back with knowledge and hope. And, unless you're like me, there'll probably be tears.


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