I’m not sure whether to say that the paragraph below this is a spoiler or not. It’s not a traditional book spoiler– it’s the historical event this book is based on. But if you want to go into this book completely blind, best to skip it.
Last summer, when Ruta Sepetys was in St. Paul, I had the chance to hear her speak passionately about a bit of nearly-lost history: a ship called the Wilhelm Gustloff that was carrying WWII refugees to safety was torpedoed by the Soviets, and about 9,000 of the 10,000 passengers died. Most of them were children and youth. The Nazis tried to cover it up, so even though more people died than in the sinkings of the Titanic and Lusitania combined, many people don’t know about this tragedy.
Ruta Sepetys brings it to life in Salt to the Sea, and it’s wonderful. There is a slow build throughout the story with the climactic event taking up a surprisingly small part of the story. The characters are well-drawn, there are plenty of secrets, and there’s a sweet romance too.
I did think the book wrapped up fast, but that was fine by me. I stayed up late to finish this one, and I was pretty emotionally ragged by the end. Also, it’s been a while since I read Sepetys’s debut Between Shades of Gray, so it took me a looooong time to catch a connection between the two books that was in pretty plain sight. Once I did, it delighted me.
This is one of those books where knowing the historical truth behind the story does nothing to diminish it. It only amplifies, and you hold on for the ride.