Sepetys, Ruta. Salt to the Sea. Philomel, 2016.
In the winter of 1945 in Europe, World War II is nearly over, but many citizens of the eastern Baltic States are fleeing the advance of the Russian army, led by Joseph Stalin, to what they hope is freedom. Travel conditions across Europe are brutal—sub-freezing temperatures, snow, rocky terrain, and little or no food and shelter.
Many refugees band together to make the trek to evacuation boats waiting at Gotenhafen on the Baltic Sea in Poland. One such group includes Joana, a young nurse from Poland, Emilia, a pregnant fifteen year-old Lithuanian girl, and Florian, an artist from Prussia. Other members of the group include a small boy, an elderly shoemaker, and a blind girl. Amazingly, they all receive passage on the Wilhelm Gustloff, formerly a cruise liner, now serving as a transport ship.
On the ship they encounter Alfred, a teenaged German soldier, who is a delusional coward, making up fantasies in his head and shirking his duties by hiding in the bathroom.
The ship, which is well over capacity, leaves the port, only to be hit hours later with three torpedoes from a Russian submarine. The ship’s inhabitants either spill out into the icy Baltic Sea or sink with the ship. Sadly, only about one-tenth of the occupants survive.
Ruta Sepetys is known for her well-researched historical novels, and Salt to the Sea is no exception. Although the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff resulted in far greater casualties (more than 9400) than the Titanic, it is not often remembered, mainly because it was overshadowed by all the other tragedies that occurred during World War II. Ms. Sepetys has given voice to thousands evacuees, many of them children, who perished in the largest maritime disaster in history.
The book is told in four alternating teen viewpoints, that of Joana, Emilia, Florian, and Alfred. Readers are able to see the horrors of war as the characters' backstories unfold in short chapters written in beautiful prose.
Even though Salt to the Sea is intended for a young adult audience, it could easily be an adult crossover. It will make its debut tomorrow, February 2, 2016. I highly recommend it for high school and public libraries and give it five out of five fleur de lis!