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“Salt to the Sea” Book Review: a heart-wrenching story of teenagers in WWII

Salt to the Sea
by Ruta Sepetys

Perhaps everyone’s familiar with Titanic, the tragic maritime accident that took the lives of 1,500 civilians, but it’s nowhere near comparison to that of Wilhelm Gustloff, a Nazi ocean liner struck by three Russian torpedoes in 1945.

Historians report the loss of 9,000 lives that night, 5,000 of them being children. 

Ruta Sepetys’ 2016 novel, Salt to the Sea, adopts this little-known historical event told by four teenagers whose paths cross on this ill-fated ship. Joana, Emilia, Florian, and Alfred are from Lithuania, Poland, East Prussia, and Germany respectively, each carrying their unique stories, adversities, and secrets. At a time when they needed company more than ever, most of their loved ones had perished under the wreath of the Red Army; but it wasn’t too late for them. Climbing through one hardship after another, they each made it onto the Wilhelm Gustloff. 

To them and the 10,000 civilians aboard on January 30, 1945, the ship was more than just a transportation; it was their promise of freedom and safety. Little did they know, they were about to meet with challenges to test the strength of their personality, hope, and trust within each other. 

“I became good at pretending. I became so good that after a while the lines blurred between my truth and fiction. And sometimes, when I did a really good job of pretending, I even fooled myself.”

– Ruta Sepetys, Salt to the Sea

Sepetys’ words artfully convey the gruesome effect of war on the younger generations of society. Truer words of the terror that gripped Eastern Europe could not be spoken as the four teenagers tell of their endeavor for survival and its vicissitude. Salt to the Sea brings readers the vicarious pleasure in an overlooked crack in history, making it an inspiring historical read for young adults.