Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people—adults and children alike—aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.
Told in alternating points of view and perfect for fans of Anthony Doerr's Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See, Erik Larson's Dead Wake, and Elizabeth Wein's Printz Honor Book Code Name Verity, this masterful work of historical fiction is inspired by the real-life tragedy that was the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff—the greatest maritime disaster in history. As she did in Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys unearths a shockingly little-known casualty of a gruesome war, and proves that humanity and love can prevail, even in the darkest of hours.
Why I liked it: Salt to the Sea follows four young adults during WWII. Each equally interesting
Joana is a Lithuanian nurse, leading a group of refugees headed for the coast and fleeing the advancing Russians. She is ruled by a strong desire to help others and the guilt of unintentionally putting her family members in danger (her cousin Lina is central character in Ruta Sepetys's other novel set during World War II, Between Shades of Gray). Joana and Florian meet on their flight and though they are unsure that they can fully trust each, they fall in love.
Emilia is young a Polish girl, who was sent to live with family friends when the war began, hoping she'd be safer there. However, the mother of the family gives her over to Russian soldiers to protect own daughter. After being raped and impregnated by Russian soldiers, she is saved from an attack from another Russian soldier by Florian, who she then follows despite his protests. She becomes a part of the brood that Joana cares for on their trek toward the coast.
Alfred, a German soldier dedicated to Hitler's vision, is described by another character as a "budding sociopath." He was late to be accepted into army because of physical health issues, but views himself as superior to others and is particularly proud of his observation skills. He is eager to please and be recognized. He narrates mental letters in his head to Hannahlore, the next door neighbor with whom he is infatuated.
All four narratives come together on the Wilhelm Gustloff, an ocean liner set to carry refugees and wounded soldiers into Germany. Disaster strikes when the ship is struck by Russian torpedoes and sinks.
I'm a history buff and loved that this historical fiction novel focused on a lesser known historical event; the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff was a tragedy even greater than the sinking of the Titanic. I also appreciated that the author did not rely on the usual good guys versus bad guys portrayal of German and Russian soldiers. Many of the average German soldiers (not Nazi officials) behave civilly, while the "good guys," the Russians, seem like barbarians. History is often kind to the winners and I think it is important for students to see that not all "good guys" were so good and not all the "bad guys" were so bad.
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