Thank you Goodreads for knowing me well enough to recommend the latest work by young adult author Ruta Sepetys, Salt to the Sea. Granted, it certainly helps that I gave glowing reviews to both Between Shades of Gray and Out of the Easy.
The Situation: It is the winter of 1945 and World War II is still raging in Europe, though it feels like defeat is near for Germany, but not near enough. Four teenagers from four different countries are doing what they can to survive the event that has already claimed so many, and relocated others away from their home. Joana, a Lithuanian girl, travels with a small group, hoping to eventually gain passage on one of the ships that will carry evacuees away from the war-torn area. She uses her skills as a nurse to help and treat whoever she can along the way, even taking in a small child who seems to have separated from his family. Florian, a young Prussian boy with experience in art preservation, also heads in the same direction, but alone, and he prefer it stay that way. Unfortunately for him, he comes upon the young and pretty Emilia and ends up saving her from the unwanted advances of a Russian soldier. Now he has a travel companion in the young Polish girl, who is also on the run from her former life. And then there is Alfred, a German soldier with illusions of grandeur who is unflinchingly supportive of what Hitler has tried to do.
The Problem: The four teenagers may have come from different countries, but their lives end up intersecting as they all have one real goal: survival. But things are easily complicated due to language barriers, cultural differences, and the secrets that they each carry. Joana uses her nursing skills and her innate desire to be helpful to mask the real guilt she feels. Florian wishes to travel alone because it would be easier to keep a low profile and not be found out. If a German soldier were to find Emilia and find out she was Polish, she would most likely be killed on the spot, even if she is pregnant. And Alfred may be German, but it is clear that even his fellow soldiers and countrymen do not respect him. He shirks work, has an inflated view of himself, and despises anyone who has the nerve to notice just how inadequate he is. Add to all of this the background of WWII Germany and it makes for an intense journey. And Sepetys makes it clear from the book jacket that the ship they all end up boarding, the Wilhelm Gustloff, will end up being a maritime disaster with very few survivors.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that is also historical fiction, much like another book by Sepetys, Between Shades of Gray. Both books take place during WWII and chronicle the hardships that are endured by those victimized by either Hitler or Stalin. The four teenagers in this book each come from a different country, from different circumstances, and must act accordingly if they hope to survive to the end of the war. The one at most risk is Emilia as she is not only Polish, a race despised by Hitler, but also incredibly pregnant. Knowing only Polish and broken German, it is ultimately good fortune that she runs into Florian. He may not want her around, but by joining up with him, she becomes connected to Joana, who wants nothing more but to help and heal. The book is a look at what war brings out in people, and what it makes them do just to survive another day. And then of course there is the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship they will all board but will ultimately end up sinking after being torpedoed by the Russians. It is an event few people know about, even though the number of people killed is even higher than that of the Titanic.
My Verdict: Is there a such thing as heavy handed but in a good way? Because that is how I would describe this book. Or maybe heavy handed, but on the right side of handy handed. Something that felt slightly off were the secrets that each character was carrying. I am not sure if it was the revelation of what the secrets were, or if it was just that there were secrets in the first place, but it seemed like the WWII setting would be enough to put these characters in desperate situations, but Sepetys managed to take it a step further. It is war after all: people find themselves doing unspeakable things even if just in the name of survival. While Joana, Florian, and Emilia are victims of the actions of Hitler and Stalin, Alfred is a willing advocate and participant, although not a good one. So the reader gets to be in the mind of those desperate to survive, and one who has bought Hitler's message and wishes to do his part. It is not an easy book to read, but it does shed light on a little known event in history, which took place during arguably the biggest conflict that world has ever seen.
Favorite Moment: After composing one of his ridiculous letters to Hannelore, the love of his life back home, Alfred quickly shifts back to reality where he is not only seasick, but also currently vomiting on his own shoes.
Favorite Character: Joana wants nothing more than to be helpful. Part of it may be an attempt to mask her own shame and guilt, but she still manages to help a lot of people.
Recommended Reading: While Out of the Easy is a good book, I would recommend Between Shades of Gray as it also deals with WWII. But instead of telling the story of those attempting to evacuate, it follows Lithuanians who were forced by Stalin's regime to leave their home and travel north to Siberia.