Review of the Week: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Salt to the SeaSepetys, Ruta. Salt to the Sea. Fiction. Philomel, 02/2016. 400pp. $18.99. 978-0-399-16030-1. OUTSTANDING. GRADES 8-12.

Based on actual events, this harrowing and moving historical YA novel brings to life an enormous, but largely forgotten tragedy. Set in Eastern Europe in the last winter of WW II, this is a highly successful return to the territory of the author’s Between Shades of Gray (2011). Thousands are fleeing from the Soviet advance, many converging on the Baltic port of Gotenhafen. Three of the novel’s young narrators meet up in this melée: Joana, a Lithuanian nurse; Emilia, a Polish evacuee; and Florian, a Prussian art restorer. The fourth narrator is a weaselly low-ranked German sailor, who works on one of the ships designated to evacuate refugees to unoccupied Germany. Each of the well-developed and distinct narrators is driven by a secret, and Sepetys uses their gradual revelation to propel the plot and bring this experience—including starvation, unbearable cold, and the brutality of both Germans and Soviets—to a human scale. The back matter details the intense research undertaken to bring this novel to fruition, including interviews with survivors of the evacuation. While Salt to the Sea is never a comfortable read, it is a compelling story that readers can lose themselves in. Review based on an ARC.

Hayley Beale, San Francisco Univ High School

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