STARRED REVIEW
February 2016

The buoyancy of hope amid war

By Ruta Sepetys
On January 30, 1945, a Soviet submarine torpedoed the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff, killing more than 9,000 people. While designated as a military transport vessel, the Wilhelm Gustloff was severely overloaded with civilian evacuees from the Baltic region, including an estimated 5,000 children. The high death toll makes this sinking the greatest maritime tragedy in history. Today, the wreckage still lies off Poland’s coast and is often referred to as “the ghost ship.”
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BookPage Teen Top Pick, February 2016

On January 30, 1945, a Soviet submarine torpedoed the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff, killing more than 9,000 people. While designated as a military transport vessel, the Wilhelm Gustloff was severely overloaded with civilian evacuees from the Baltic region, including an estimated 5,000 children. The high death toll makes this sinking the greatest maritime tragedy in history. Today, the wreckage still lies off Poland’s coast and is often referred to as “the ghost ship.”

Acclaimed author Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray) explores this little-known World War II tragedy in her intense and compelling third novel. Salt to the Sea focuses on the lives of four young people from different homelands, each separated from their families during wartime. The narrative shifts throughout as Joana, Emilia, Florian and Alfred chronicle the often terrifying events that bring them together. The first three are seeking escape on the crowded ship; Alfred is one of the Nazi soldiers stationed on it. 

To tell this harrowing tale, Sepetys traveled to several countries to research the event, but she also has a family connection: Her father’s cousin fled Lithuania and had a pass for the ill-fated voyage, but she ended up on another ship. In the author’s note, Sepetys writes: “As I wrote this novel I was haunted by the thoughts of the helpless children and teenagers—innocent victims of border shifts, ethnic cleansings, and vengeful regimes.” 

Teen readers will be drawn in by the short chapters, strong characters and heartbreaking story. In scenes reminscent of the sinking of the Titanic, matters of life and death are decided in a single moment.

 

Deborah Hopkinson lives near Portland, Oregon. Her most recent book for young readers is Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig.

This article was originally published in the February 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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Salt to the Sea

Salt to the Sea

By Ruta Sepetys
Philomel
ISBN 9780399160301

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