I finished SALT TO THE SEA by Ruta Sepetys after hearing so much about this book from everywhere. And I must say, I wasn’t disappointed. I don’t normally read historical fiction, but I loved the cover, and it was lauded as a fabulous book for distinct voices, so it was a must-read.
It tells the story of a little-known ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, carrying thousands of refugees from many countries during World War II presumably to safety. Sepetys offers us a unique look into the tragedy of war, delivering four different stories, from four teens coming from…yes, four different parts of Europe. Each story plays out over the book, converging on one another once they board the ship. You can imagine the setup here–the massive outpouring of people trying to escape Hitler’s grasp to make it to a new world where they could be free.
This is not your usual WWII story, and yet it is. It has all of the angst, tragedy, peril, and heartbreak you can imagine. People fleeing their homelands, teens thrust into adulthood as a result of circumstance, and mistakes made at every turn. Oh, the mistakes. I’m not sure I would have fared any better under the circumstances.
I was very interested to read this after hearing this story was told in four parts, with four very distinct voices. As a writer, it is always a challenge to write multiple POVs, and I wanted to see how Sepetys handled it. I must admit, I started listening to this as an audiobook, mainly because I couldn’t get my hands on the book right away. I usually love audiobooks, but this had a few problems. First, the chapters are really, really short. Like, one page, two pages, short. So, it took quite a while to get used to the switch in voices which occurred very frequently. And second, one of the people voicing one of the characters either had a cold when recording, or has a slight speech impediment (or maybe a localized accent?). All of her words which included the letters “LD” together ended up sounding like “OD”. So, instead of cold, or old…they came out like ODE and CODE. I couldn’t get past it. Hard to believe how many times they talked about being cold in this book, and it was just too much.
Thankfully, I finally got a copy of the book and finished reading. I actually enjoyed reading through it, and found it went quite a bit faster with the short chapters, and the fact that I was half to three-quarters through already.
********SPOILER WARNING: SKIP AHEAD NOW*******Of course, my distraction with the book was no fault of Sepetys. Her book was well crafted, with engaging characters and a gripping story. (Was it just me, or was the shoe poet one of the BEST characters in the whole book?) If you’ve seen “Titanic” at any point in life, you’ll find a lot of similarities in the ending (not just the fact that the ship sinks), so it made me question how much of this she thought she invented and how often she’s seen Titanic. Aside from those few instances, the book had twists I enjoyed, and characters that were well researched and thought out. She even made us feel some sympathy for a German soldier who longed to be someone. I’m glad she attempted it, at the very least.
SPOILERS OVER: If you love historical fiction, this is a great read, and a fast one. I love that we weren’t bogged down by pages of info dumping. Sepetys skillfully weaves historical, geographical, and clinical facts into her stories so that we hardly know they’re there. If you’re looking for a book to recommend to a reader of YA historical fic, this is it. And if you’re looking for a book to give to a reluctant reader, this is also the book. The short chapters and engaging content will keep them turning the pages.
On to something new!