ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2016 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 62, No.4 - Winter 2016
Editor of this issue:Almantas Samalavičius

Book Review

Ruta Sepetys. Salt to the Sea. New York: Philomel, 2016. 391 pages. ISBN 9780399160301.

Ruta Sepetys tells the compelling tale of three teens during the last months of World War II. They are fleeing their war-torn homelands, just ahead of the advancing Soviet army. Joana is Lithuanian, Emilia is Polish, and Florian is Prussian. The fourth, Alfred, is a young German sailor in the port of Pil-lau. All are realistic, enticing characters. Each has their own story, revealed over the course of the novel. The three meet, befriend each other, and travel together through a devastated East Prussia. Sepetys follows their compelling stories with exacting and wrenching detail. They face hunger, homeless-ness, deception, bombings, shootings, and looting. There's even an embedded spy story about the disappearance of the Amber Room. Together they form a bond, ensuring their mutual survival. All four eventually sail across the Baltic on the ill-fated Wilhelm Gustloff. Three of them survive the sinking of the ship, while many of their companions are sadly lost at sea, including Alfred.

The historical fiction is based on the real lives of a handful of teenagers and young adults. They boarded and survived the Wilhelm Gustloff. Sepetys' characters are fictionalized composites of these survivors. Their horrors come from historic memoirs of East European refugees. The destruction of the Wilhelm Gustloff is, of course, a major secret of World War II. Post-war Germany ignored even the shining moments of its Nazi past, while the Soviets, of course, hid their torpedoing of a refugee rescue ship. Sep-etys felt compelled to honor it since it is the largest naval disaster in history.

The novel is written for teenagers. Chapters are short, sentences are crisp, and the action moves quickly. The novel alternates between four first-person points of view. Each of the characters tells their experiences from their own perspective. The same incidents sometimes repeat in quick succession, told by two or three different characters, giving the reader a more complete perspective of the event. Alfred's segments are often expressed in letters to and from his mother and his girlfriend. In spite of the target audience, the narrative is non-linear: the reader is forced to produce meaning from the fragmentary episodes.

Sepetys' previous historical novel Between Shades of Gray (not to be confused with Fifty Shades of Gray) made it to the New York Times best seller list. It has been translated into any number of languages. It is scheduled to be released as a motion picture, Ashes in the Snow, in 2016.

Salt to the Sea is a must-read. It realistically condenses end-of war-refugee tragedies into an action-packed adventure. Sepetys is a talented and enticing author. Be prepared for a great story about life, filled with hope, heart break, and friendship.