Review (Plus): ‘Salt to the Sea’

Bookshelf Blurb: The worst maritime tragedy of all time–an untold tale of WWII–is told from the perspectives of four German teenagers.

SaltToTheSea_9780399160301_6d8b1America’s Review: Many people don’t know the story of the worst maritime tragedy in history, where the death toll surpassed those of both the Titanic and the Lusitania disasters.

In her newest novel, Salt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys weaves together the experiences of four teenagers–each with their own agenda, loyalties and secrets–to put a spotlight on this historical event.

A page can be a chapter in a book. But in Salt to the Sea, a page can be a glimpse into a moment of Florian, Emilia, Alfred or Joana’s life and how each character is touched by the cruelty of Hitler’s war. The constantly changing points of view allowed me to feel connected to the characters without being drawn to like one more than another. Each of their stories evoked different emotions as I read: indignation at the Russians who pillaged villages, raped women and slaughtered children; gut-wrenching agony as Joana confessed to being guilty of murder; and hope for a wandering boy when he told a German guard that a man who was holding him was his Opi. By the time I discovered that Emilia was pregnant–not by the illusions she had created of a loving and doting husband, but a Russian who had brutally raped her–I was a member of this traveling group of people. The historical depth Ruta Sepetys creates is masterful and true to the agony witnessed during this time.

Their bravery, along with their cowardice, wind together as the characters journey toward a common goal: to board a ship to depart from their own personal hells.

We know the ending of World War II, but what we do not know–what propels us toward the end of the book–is the fate of our four characters. The untold story of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a beautiful cruise liner intended for all Germans–including those in the German Labor Front–to enjoy leisure time through an organization, Kraft durch Freude (Strength Through Joy), is masterfully recreated. The ship was converted from a cruise liner to an evacuation ship for refugees to leave before the Russians make it to the German front.

Our four main characters find places on the ship for the mere 48 hours it will take to travel across the sea to their freedom. Less than 24 hours into the voyage, Russian torpedoes find their mark and blow the ship apart.  Over 9,000 lives are lost, their stories lost to the depths of the Baltic Sea. I knew this book would not be perfectly wrapped up in a bow, as no story with Hitler as a antagonist can be, but that readers could be left with hope in the goodness of humanity. And I was not disappointed.

In the classroom: Any time you can create a lesson plan with a multi-disciplinary thematic approach you should jump at the opportunity. Maritime disasters allow diverse research projects and can allow a cross-curriculum approach to both the English aspect as well as the historical. Have your students select one of the characters and research his or her past. Although this is a fictional piece, Sepetys has done her research and found a plethora of research avenues that are true to each character. The research papers could focus on the maritime disaster or could focus on aspects of the characters’ stories.

Develop the topic thoroughly by selecting the most significant and relevant facts, extended definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples appropriate to the audience’s knowledge of the topic.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel Books | 9780399160301 | February 2, 2016)

America Grelinger

America Grelinger doesn’t mind if you call her Ms. America. It makes her head swell and she loves the title. America is a former English teacher and has a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction, now retired to raise two crazy little boys who think the funniest thing on the planet is to burp and toot… which is why she reads. Because it’s cheaper than counseling. Amy and her husband live with those two crazy little boys in Derby, Kansas.