Review: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

FullSizeRenderGenre: Young Adult Historical Fiction

Rating: 4.0/5.0 Stars

Main Takeaway: An extremely moving novel based in true events. My new favorite WW2 fiction.


“Just when you think this war has taken everything you loved, you meet someone and realize that somehow you still have more to give.”

It’s nearing the end of World War II, and the Germans are posed to fall as the Russians advance from the East, pillaging Eastern Europe as they go. The lives of four teenagers – Joana, Florian, Emilia, and Alfred (a nurse, a rebel, a Pole, and a Nazi, respectively) – converge on their quest to escape the dangerous territory and find safety on the ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, across the Baltic Sea. What results is a tale of friendship, integrity, trust, and survival to last the ages.

What drew me to this novel, other than the overwhelming recommendations from Bookstagrammers, was the setting. World War II, yes, is my favorite historical fiction era, but the sinking of a naval ship was what did it. A real event, a tragedy I had never heard of, nonetheless the deadliest naval disaster in modern history. How had I not heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff? My curiosity peaked, I wanted to learn more.

What I found in the pages of Salt to the Sea was horrors I had never – or could have never – imagined, interspersed with stories of hope and love and strength and pure goodness. In particular, Emilia’s story really struck me. Here we have a fifteen-year-old girl who has endured the worst nightmares imaginable, the worst evils the world could throw upon her; and yet she radiates kindness and loyalty and bravery, pure goodness that is incapable of being tainted by the evil around it.

When I closed Salt to the Sea, I was a wreck. I spent the rest of the afternoon thinking of how terrible this chapter of our collective history truly is and how not-so-distant it all feels. But after an hour (I’ll admit it was two, I became WAY too attached to Emilia) of wallowing and raging over the injustice and darkness of the world, I began to appreciate the light. The friendship and love, the empathy and bravery apparent in Joana, Florian, and Emilia (let’s forget about Alfred for a minute, because he was just a sociopathic Nazi jerk); how three people from such different places and walks of life were brought together for something good. Salt to the Sea was beautiful and difficult, an emotional upheaval, and has quickly become my favorite World War II fiction.

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