BOOK: Salt to the Sea.
AUTHOR(S): Ruta Sepetys.
GENRE: Historical fiction. Young Adult.
PUBLISHER: Philomel Books.
DATE READ: 01/28/2017-02/05/2017.
LENGTH: 389 pages.
PERSONAL RATING: 4/5
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.
THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS. THIS REVIEW ALSO CONTAINS DISCUSSIONS OF THE HOLOCAUST. PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.
I actually abandoned my first book of the year (Atonement by Ian McEwan) and switched over to this book, which I think was a wise choice. I’ll revisit Atonement at some point but it just wasn’t jiving with me and as much as I hate to abandon books, it’s better to set it aside and come back to it some other time than to try to drag yourself through it.
Onto the actual book review, however.
The Holocaust and World War II has always been an intriguing topic to me. In fact, I took a history class on the Holocaust and genocides around the world when I didn’t need another history class because I was so intrigued by it. That said, I have read a shamefully low number of books relating to it, whether they be fiction or nonfiction. This is a step in the direction of remedying that, and I feel it was a good step.
I am always a bit wary when it comes to historical fiction because I worry that the author may not address the historical context in an appropriate or respectful way, especially when it’s something this important and harrowing. I think Sepetys did incredibly well with this, however, and I’m not terribly surprised considering her personal/familial connection to the subject matter. I was also worried that the focus would be on romance rather than the characters and their journeys, but I was again pleasantly surprised: Salt to the Sea did, in fact, have some romance but it was hardly the focus (except in Alfred, the Nazi sailor who used the memory of the woman back home that he loved as a sort of reprieve from the trials and tribulations of war).
Speaking of Alfred: I honestly hated his character. Not just because he was a Nazi, either; he was grating, entitled, whiny, and unbearably weak. Every time a chapter of his came about, I wanted to skip it, especially since they were mostly just his mental letters to Hannelore. I especially hated the way he leered at any woman who crossed his path. I wasn’t terribly sad when he died – in fact, I was quite pleased – but I did think it was an interesting twist that Hannelore was not only half-Jewish but was proud to be so and exclaimed it when she was taken away after Alfred turned her father in. I wasn’t too surprised to find out about that, however; it seemed the sort of “star-crossed lover” angle that would appeal to both readers and writers alike.
I felt that each character was intriguing in their own right – even, yes, Alfred – and the twisting ways in which they were all brought together was quite natural feeling rather than ridiculously forced. I felt that each one was different and distinguishable, but not all of them were entirely human or well-rounded, even those who had chapters from their own limited first-person points of view. Hands down, my favorite character was the Shoe Poet, a man whom I would love to read a book about if Sepetys were to ever write about a side character from this book.
While the writing was easy to read and overall pretty good, I did feel that the ending was unbelievably rushed and abrupt. Also, it was quite confusing, especially the letter that Florian received years later regarding the finding of Emilia’s body. I also am generally not a big fan of multiple POVs in a single book, especially when the chapters each change; it feels disjointed and awkward. There were also a few chapters toward the last third of the book that were literally just single sentences, and I thought that was unnecessary.
But the book itself was filled with quite a bit of facts, historically accurate information, and shed some good light on some of the occurrences that I, and I imagine many others, were not aware of regarding the Holocaust and the aftermath of it.
I would be hard-pressed to say that this book was life-changing or that it deserves a stop in my top ten, but it was enjoyable.