On January 30, 1945, nine thousand souls perished as the Wilhelm Gustloff sank in the Baltic Sea. It’s the deadliest disaster in maritime history, yet hardly anyone has heard of it. Most of the passengers on the ship were trying to escape to safety from the advancing Russian army as German defenses crumbled. Salt to the Sea imagines the story of four of them: one in the German army and three young civilians, fleeing through what was then East Prussia (now parts of Poland and Russia). Told in alternating points of view, it captures what the war must have been like for teenagers whose homes and families had been lost to them in World War II. Doing their best to survive, they don’t know whom to trust when every decision they make could mean life or death.
Sepetys has created four beautifully drawn characters in this book: vulnerable Emilia, from Poland; the determined, capable Lithuanian, Joana; the haunted, tough East Prussian Florian; and the slightly deranged Alfred, the Nazi soldier. Each one carries a secret, and this element of suspense keeps the story moving forward quickly. Sepetys has done detailed research on the time period and uses this information to make the horror of war real for the reader.
Although this book is written for teens, it’s an equally great read for adults, especially those who like World War II fiction, or anyone who likes historical fiction with compelling human stories. It’s a bittersweet, inspiring story of courage and love.