A heartwrenching story of four teenagers and their darkest secrets that did a number on my emotions.
Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.
Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.
As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.
Yet not all promises can be kept.
I rarely read historical fiction, but this book was everything I want from the genre rolled into one: strong characters, an emotional plot, and writing that brings the past to life.
Salt to the Sea is an incredibly character-driven book. Told from four different POVs, the book contains four separate stories that slowly weave together. The short chapters ensured that I never got bored with any of the POVs.
Emilia was my favorite character. She is simultaneously extremely young and battle-hardened. Her observation skills were realistic considering her backstory and helped make the rest of the characters more interesting because we got to see them through her inquisitive lens. When we finally discovered the entirety of her backstory, it ripped out my heart and made me love her even more.
Alfred was definitely my least favorite POV. He’s supposed to be annoying and unreliable—and he REALLY succeeds at it. I am both impressed at how well Sepetys was able to craft his character and annoyed by having to be in his head. Still, his character is definitely not what you normally see in YA fiction, and for that, I have to appreciate his character.
The interactions between the characters made this book special, especially because we got to see every interaction from both POVs. Joanna and Florian’s characters slowly develop feelings for each other; thankfully, though, their romance never overwhelms the rest of the plot.
Emilia’s hero-worship of Florian was interesting and refreshing. She does not fall in love with him, but she develops a strong bond with him nonetheless. I thought it was really interesting that even though all of the characters are young adults, there is a clear age divide between Emilia and Florian/Joanna. That age divide made their relationships more complex than they would have been if Sepetys had made them all “peers.”
For most of the book, Emilia, Florian, and Joanna travel together. Though they are working together to get to a port and to flee the Soviets, they never become an intensely loyal Team; they each have their own motivations and fears holding them back. Again, this added realism to the story and was a refreshing break from what I expected, which was them to become a tight-knit group instantaneously.
Though Salt to the Sea is set in WWII, it focuses on aspects of the war that most people do not know about. Each character is from a different area of Europe, bringing four different refugee stories to life. Also, historical events that do not get as much attention—like the Nazi art theft and the Wilhelm Gustloff tragedy—are major parts of the plot. Because of this, the book felt new and enlightening, even though I have read lots of WWII historical fiction.
The ending of this book freaked me out. It was terrifying. Knowing that it actually happened made it even worse. Somehow, I didn’t cry, which still confuses me. Maybe I was just too destroyed emotionally to cry.
My only problem with this book is the pacing. The plot does not have a clear arc; it is really just their journey to the ship, and then what happens on the ship. Because of this, there is no sense of build-up or anticipation dragging you through the plot. Salt to the Sea is almost entirely character-driven, which worked because the characters are so vividly portrayed, but that kept it from been perfectly paced.
I would recommend Salt to the Sea to fans of historical fiction or character-driven novels. It is a truly incredible story that brings the suffering of war to life.