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Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

One of the best gifts you can give is a book - and I remind my family of that every year when my birthday rolls around! Last year I received four books for my birthday, and they speak to how well my loved ones know me! Two world war historical fictions, an Edwardian mystery, and a modern-day cozy family saga. An entertaining collection to keep me company!


My favorite of the set was the captivating Salt to the Sea. Painting a deeply evocative portrayal of refugees in the dreary landscape of World War II, Ruta Sepetys shares with us the desperation of war-torn lives through multiple perspectives. Riveting and emotional, Salt to the Sea held me throughout the novel, and I felt the intensity of the story quicken with the short chapters. Sepetys' writing style elevates the plot and surrounds readers with unforgettable scenes.


Celebrating an emotionally-charged, beautifully-crafted read, I give Salt to the Sea four and a half stars!


Review: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys


Salt to the Sea captures a small scene of the world during World War II as it unfolds through the eyes of three refugees and one German soldier. Joana, with her medical training and fighting the urge to help everyone she encounters, seeks to reunite with her mother after fleeing Russian forces in Lithuania. Emilia, Polish and carrying a devastating secret, longs to reunite with her father who sent her away to what he thought would be safe hiding place. Florian, once used by the Reich, now runs for his life, searching for his sister and hoping his secret will tear at the Fuhrer's ambitions. Alfred, a young and a late Nazi recruit, writes love letters home while looking for ways to be a good German in Hitler's eyes. As their paths cross, intertwining as they all seek a different form of safety in the harbor and the promise of a future by a luxury-liner-turned-rescue-ship, they learn about each other, what the war has cost each of them, and what they hold dearest--what the heart clings to in the light of hope in a darkening world.

Sepetys crafts the tales of these refugees not only as emotional, first-hand accounts but with daring clarity and historical precision. Her choice of using first-person points of view elevate the perspectives of each story, allowing her to better capture the physical and emotional experiences of the characters with vivid descriptions and sharp action that is as quick as the short chapters. She uses these descriptions, calling at times on different sense and emotions for different characters, to not only deepen the reader's connection with their turmoil but expand on the urgency in their motivations to escape the danger that follows them and the chase down the hope they are constantly pursuing. By immersing us in the characters' memories of life before the war, she also deepens our own investment in their survival while bringing home a very raw experience of being pulled away from their families.


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"The lace curtain flapped in the kitchen window. The breeze today was the kind you opened the shutters for, the kind that carried away old sin and flakes of sadness. The sun streamed through the window, blooming light through a jar of amber honey on the sill. I dipped my fingers into the cool sack of flour, sprinkled a handful across the board, and began to roil out the dough Rachel and Helen were coming for tea after synagogue. They would be thrilled to have their favorite doughnuts with rose petal jam."

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A very well-developed aspect of the book is how Sepetys adds to the characters' urgency by writing in very short chapters, some as small as only a few sentences. While it took some time for me to get used to the quick chapters, especially with each chapter switching point of view between the four protagonists, the effect is very powerful. Not all writers can capture such tense experiences full of action in such a short time while packing such a punch, but she does it well. The added effect, which she achieves more than once, is presenting us with an event through more than one character's eyes to allow the impact to pervade throughout the group of characters. And because the chapters are short, she is able to show us the events through several points of view before a single scene has come to a close.


Salt to the Sea also leads the reader through the emotional strain of simply existing during a time when that was enough to bring about a death sentence. Joana is half German, her only saving grace, but questions what that means for her after leaving her home country. Emilia is Polish, one of the many nationalities on Hitler's list of un-Germanizable peoples. Another member of their traveling party, Ingrid, was born blind, deemed weak and incurable by the Reich. By emphasizing these aspects to deepen the characters' depth, Sepetys creates a severity that surpasses their exodus from Germany. Their fear seeps into their identities, which are much more than the common Jewish focus of WWII-era stories.

Among the perspectives, Alfred is Sepetys's outlier. A fresh sailor with Nazi ideals, he has more than one motive in his post on the Wilhelm Gustloff, but what he provides the reader is a look at a shared experience through the eyes of a Nazi soldier. His sometimes casual reflection on the war, the Reich's motivations, and his own beliefs tightens the rope around the novel's world in a way that brings the minute-by-minute intensity of the war to the forefront of the reader's mind. Sepetys, however, doesn't shortchange the character by sacrificing his depth; rather, she provides a well-developed character with his own genuine motivations and perceptions, all of which are at odds with the other characters through the book.


Lastly, Sepetys's historical accuracy is much appreciated throughout the novel. Her brief chapters do not forsake the descriptions necessary to bring the war to life, instead intensifying the brutality of the characters' experiences as if stating how quickly they must make their decisions and how impactful even the smallest exchange can be when survival is the only objective. Her blend of literary descriptions and historical references bring the time period to the reader in a gentle, natural way that doesn't overcompensate for the complex events that rolled into short chapters.


Salt to the Sea was a page-turner that I simply couldn't keep out of my hands! For any fan of historical fiction, the world that Sepetys builds around the shared experience of the characters is one that will keep a reader enthralled while her writing style will tug at your emotions throughout the book. As a highly empathetic reader, I want to emphasize that she doesn't hold back when it comes to her descriptions of war, but they are usually blunt and allow her to quickly move on rather than focusing on what the characters witness as opposed to what they experience. However, I appreciated her ability to create a world of constant chaos that had me reading a quickly as my eyes could go!


A quick read with high stakes and a historical world that is second to none, Salt to the Sea is a captivating book that will leave you wanting more!


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