Friday, March 4, 2016

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: March 4, 2016

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. Inspired by the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, bestselling and award-winning author Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray) lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II. An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope.

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Generally speaking I turn to young adult lit when I’m in the mood for something light. I mean no offense in that admission, but the genre doesn’t satisfy my tastes the way it once did. This being the case, I seriously considered bypassing Ruta Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea altogether, but the truth of the matter is that the subject matter was simply too tempting to ignore.

The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is a tragedy I’m very familiar with, but Sepetys’ work marks the first time I’ve seen it adapted to fiction. The disaster serves as the backdrop for the novel’s climax and I loved how the magnitude of event was emphasized by the individual experiences of Sepetys’ cast. The author’s incorporation of the mystery surrounding the Amber Room was also noteworthy, but it was her descriptions of Operation Hannibal that struck the most emotional chord. I read a lot of World War II fiction and genuinely feel the desperation Sepetys illustrated within these pages beyond compare.

Joana’s resolve and generous heart made her an intensely compelling heroine. Florian is flawed, but his tenacity and courage endear him to Sepetys’ audience from page one. Emilia, sweet and gentle Emilia carries a burden of memory and experience I’ve rarely seen in adult fiction and while I was both horrified and heartbroken over the revelation of her backstory, I feel the loss of innocence that defines her journey the most powerful arc of the narrative. I found Heinz, the shoe poet, singularly charming and felt Ingrid refreshingly inspired. Like many readers, I struggled to appreciate Alfred though I can’t decide if that because I felt his voice superfluous or because I pegged his story in the early chapters of the narrative.

In the author’s note, Sepetys states she was “… haunted by thoughts of helpless children and teenagers – innocent victims of border shifts, ethnic cleansings, and vengeful regimes. Hundreds of thousands of children were orphaned during World War II. Abandoned or separated from their families, they were forced to battle the beast of war on their own, left with an inheritance of heartache and responsibility for events they had no role in causing.” Sepetys novel is intense, painful, and at times, uncomfortable, but it truly reflects the horrors faced by children of the period and stands as a testament to the terror they endured and overcame.

Salt to the Sea is not an easy read, but it is a brutally powerful one that I highly recommend.

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“I unbuttoned my coat, enduring the freezing temperature in order to allow the bloodstains on my shirt to be visible. I had another stain of course. One that wasn’t visible. Sippenhaft. Blood guilt.” 
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