What is the largest loss of life in a naval disaster in history? If Titanic comes to mind, you’re close- that is the third largest non-military ship disaster recorded, with 1,503 lives lost. But did you know that during World War II, a ship was lost that claimed the lives of 9,400 people? This uncovered story comes to light in the latest historical novel by Ruta Sepetys, Salt to the Sea.
I thought I was through with reading World War II stories. I’ve read about the women at home and the men on the front. I’ve read about the refugees and the holocaust. My skin has crawled at the atrocities of the camps and I’ve been chilled by the gutted realities of the trenches. These stories are painful and intrusive, chillingly close to my 21st century comfort. One cannot view them with the smug spyglass distance as, say, the stories of the Crusades.
Modern writers, however, seem to return, like teens to haunted houses, to walk the gory halls of the WWII experience in attempts to own and understand the war of our grandparents’ generation. And they drag faithful readers like me into those dark places with them.
Ruta Sepetys has done a war story before; the best-selling ‘Between Shades of Gray’ came from her desk five years ago. This book promises to shed light on ‘a little-known moment in World War II history.’ The hint of historical mystery was enough to entice me to pick up the book.
Salt to the Sea is classified as Young Adult fiction, hence a fast-paced, tense, emotional and hard-hitting story. A Young Adult writer assumes the reader has at least ten other places to be at the moment, so is no scenic meandering or philosophical commentary; it is pure story, pure impact.
In this book, four unconnected teenagers merge by happenstance to join in a tense dash across the German landscape as Hitler’s power collapses. The dreaded Soviets are hard on their heels, with their own impressive list of brutalities to terrorize the German population. Florian, a child-soldier with a dangerous secret, makes one compassionate choice and is saddled with a battered girl who insists on viewing him as her savior. Joana, romantic failure extraordinaire, exercises her gifts of compassion and healing with unrelenting determination. And schizophrenic Alfred does all he can to make himself comfortable and claim hero status.
In a remarkably unjaded bid for hope, these teens traverse the rotten landscape of war with heroic effort when most seasoned adults would fold the deck. This is part of the fun of a YA novel, the inability to talk reason into a battered set of heroes.
But the machinations of war are evil and legion, and they are manipulated into the climatic tragedy so terrible it has for years remained under a veil.
Sepetys does a wonderful job of bringing this historical event into sharp focus through fiction. The book is not shy about the atrocities of war, but they are presented in a tasteful way. Swearing is minimal, characterization is strong, the unspeakable violations of soldiers are not elevated by over-rank descriptions. The book has adult emotional content and I would not recommend it to pre-teens, but for mature readers it is an excellent look at yet another event caused by World War II, and ends with the longed-for note of hope so hard to obtain in a war story.