Joana is a Lithuanian girl whose nursing skills could be her passport home. Florian is a fancy name, but perhaps it fits this young art forger. Emilia has secrets: one is her Polish origin, and the other may be her only reason for living. Alfred writes imaginary letters to his beloved Hannelore. He is eager to show her that the other boys were wrong to make fun of him for not joining the Hitler Youth; he can be a better Nazi than all of them. All four of these characters tell their intertwined stories as they run with thousands of others to the ships that can take them away from war. Some run from Hitler, some from Stalin, but all of them pour down the Baltic states, away from violence and brutality, perhaps to hope and a future. But if they fail, they will become just so much salt to the sea.
Ruta Sepetys once again draws upon her grandparents’ stories of Lithuanian oppression under Stalin to bring us a story we need to remember: the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff and the loss of over 9,000 lives in the Baltic Sea. These numbers dwarf those of the Titanic and the Lusitania combined, but we have heard the stories of these more famous shipwrecks repeatedly. Sepetys is passionate to expose the horrors of the Stalin regime, which have remained hidden through all the decades of the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain. Her award-winning debut, Between Shades of Gray, describes the agonies of the Siberian concentration camps during World War II, camps that were not revealed to the world at the end of the war, as Hitler’s camps were. Salt to the Sea tells another story of young men and women with promising futures whose lives were forever altered—and some whose minds were forever bent—because of the actions of powerful people far away.
Besides her important subjects, Sepetys creates fully-realized characters and a compelling plot combined with writing that is filled with emotion, but eschews sentimentality. Her sentences are sharp, but beautiful. Here are some excerpts from the very end of four quick chapters. I won’t tell you who is speaking in each one:
Fate is a hunter.
Its barrel pressed against my forehead.
Guilt is a hunter.
I was its hostage.
Shame is a hunter.
My shame was all around me now.
You see, fear is a hunter. It encircles us when we are unarmed and least expect it. And then we are forced to make decisions.
Your decision… was the wrong one.*
This is a must-read for all middle and high school units on World War II, and for any adults who might think it’s not such a big deal that Putin is trying to reclaim the Baltic States. We all need to hear these hidden stories.
Very highly recommended.
*Pages 347, 349, 351, and 353.
Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which will be published on February 2nd. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.