Salt to the Sea

Joana has been walking for days. She’s gathered around her others fleeing the Russian troops advancing through the eastern lands of the Third Reich. There’s Eva, a giantess of a woman, Poet, who is a shoemaker and waxes poetical about shoes, boots and feet, and Ingrid, a blind girl Joana found lost at a train station.

As they walk, they also pick up Klaus, a little boy wandering the woods after his grandmother wouldn’t wake up. Emilia, a Polish girl, soon joins their party, along with her knight, the Prussian Florian, each hiding a secret of her or his own.

Everyone is heading towards the port, trying to escape the brutal Russian troops. The roads are crowded, harassed by Russian planes flying overhead.

Author Ruta Sepetys again shows her brilliant research and writing abilities in Salt to the Sea, a novel about the massive evacuation called Operation Hannibal, and resulting worst maritime disaster in history – the sinking of the Wilhem Gustloff.

Sepetys alternates between four distinct voices, each haunted by a secret: Joana, Emilia, Florian and Alfred. Each character is distinct, and I’m amazed at her ability to transition between the four while keeping their voice consistent.

Salt to the Sea is a stand-alone novel, yet a companion novel to Between Shades of Gray. You don’t have to read one to understand the other. Like Between Shades of Gray, Salt to the Sea is a great supplemental novel for those studying World War II, as well as for those who want to read meaningful literary works.

Like Between Shades of Grey, the events in Salt to the Sea are for the emotionally mature. Sepetys relates horrible, horrible events as gently as possible. I think the best overall description of this book comes from the last paragraph: “War is catastrophe. It breaks families in irretrievable pieces.”

Both Between Shades of Grey and Salt to the Sea tell stories of broken families, irretrievable pieces, broken lives, broken hearts. They bring the horror of war – whether it be Stalin’s reign of terror or trying to survive German occupation and advancing troops – to a very personal level, which helps readers personalize the “millions killed” in this theatre of war.

Highly, highly recommended for ages 15 and up.

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