Salt to the Sea
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Published: February 2nd, 2016 by Philomel Books
GoodReads Summary: The author of Between Shades of Gray returns to WWII in this epic novel that shines a light on one of the war’s most devastating—yet unknown—tragedies.
In 1945, World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia, and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, almost all of them with something to hide. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer toward safety.
Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.
My Review: This is a book about humanity. Each voice serves a unique purpose to foster a complete picture of this great tragedy in history. The characters feel real, and their stories and perspectives are so different that readers are able to fully understand a diversity of experiences toward the war. Wow, wow, wow. I don’t feel that summarizing or reviewing this book will even do it justice. I felt like I couldn’t eat or sleep until I finished it. Salt to the Sea takes readers on an epic adventure and throws them for an emotional tailspin. After I closed the cover, I was reeling. The language is powerful and the story is captivating.
Ruta Sepetys holds a special place in my heart. She is a powerful force in historical fiction, and this book is no exception. Several years ago, I was fortunate to be sharing a drink with Ruta at the ALAN cocktail party. When I asked her what she was working on, her eyes glinted as she talked about the concept of this book. She felt a connection to this tragedy, and while nothing had been written at the time, I knew it would be a remarkable novel. For the next several years, I thought about the way Ruta described the historical event, and I consistently checked her pages to see if I would see any further information about its progress. Several years later, I would (fortunately) receive this book in the mail. Boy was it worth the wait.
Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: The teaching opportunities for this book are endless. I would love to use this book to teach the theme: What does it mean to be human? or What does it mean to be a good person? Then, I might pair other texts (e.g. Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini) and create a text set to consider these themes. The perspective and voice of these characters are strong, and I imagine rich classroom discussions about the ways these four characters show us a slice of humanity. (One of the four main characters is debatably evil, and this would offer excellent, critical conversations). Beyond these four characters, readers might consider the minor characters of this text (or tangential war figures, such as Hitler or Stalin). Are humans innately selfish? Are the innately good? Are we all flawed? Are there any universal characteristics amongst these characters, or are they too different?
Discussion Questions: How does the author balance historical information and story? What tools does she use to do this?; Why do you think the author chose to feature four points-of-view rather than one? Does it add or detract from the story? What similarities do you see across these voices? What differences?
We Flagged: “Survival had its price: guilt.”
*Quote taken from an advanced reader copy. It may change after publication.*
Read This If You Loved: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys; The Watch that Ends the Night by Allan Wolf; The Book Thief by Markus Zusak; A Night to Remember by Walter Lord; The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer; Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally; Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
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