It’s the start of the new year and, for the next six weeks, I am going to be Cybilling away reading the short-listed finalists for the Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Award. I have a few new reviews under my belt, including this one, but there will probably be a few trips to the archives as I can’t blog about any of the finalists till the winner is announced.
In this intensely moving historical YA fiction, Ruta Sepetys returns to a similar era and location to that in her wonderful, but unfortunately titled, Between Shades of Gray (2011).
In the last winter of World War II, thousands are fleeing from the brutal Soviet advance in Eastern Europe, many converging on the port of Gotenhafen on the Baltic Sea. Three of the novel’s young narrators meet up in this melee: Joana, a Lithuanian nurse, Emilia, whose family sent her from Poland to East Prussia assuming it was safer, and Florian, a Prussian who restored paintings for the notorious (real-life) Nazi Erich Koch. The fourth narrator is a weaselly low-ranked German sailor, who is assigned to the Wilhelm Gustloff, one of the ships designated to evacuate thousands to unoccupied Germany as part of Operation Hannibal.
Each of the narrators carries with him or her a secret that drives them on. They all believe, hopelessly optimistically, that “The war would end. We would all go home.” The narrative is driven forward in short chapters, moving between the four narrators, and, as the evacuees’ circumstances become ever more dire, the reader gradually learns what they are guarding from themselves and each other.
Based on real life events, this harrowing story of refugees brings to light an enormous, but largely unheard of, tragedy. This is a story about the collateral damage of war – the children, the teenagers, the women – who have suffering and hardship imposed by forces beyond their control. I think that much as James Cameron’s Titanic gave us a way of processing that tragedy through Jack and Rose, Ms. Sepetys brings these events – including the starvation, the unbearable cold, the shocking inhumanity of both Germans and Soviets – to a human scale through Joana, Emilia and Florian. There are no happy endings, and she is harshly realistic about survival.
Ms Septys has undertaken a huge amount of research, including talking to many survivors of the evacuation, and actually visiting the locations.Her Author’s Note separates the facts and fiction, as well as giving some background, and the details of her research and sources gives us a glimpse into the intricate process that she undertook to bring this novel to fruition.
While Salt to the Sea is never a comfortable read, I believe it will appeal to teens who relish a read that they can lose themselves in.
Reviewed from an ARC.
Note and spoiler alert: The central tragedy of this novel is the torpedoing of the Wilhelm Gustloff and the loss of 9000 lives. I knew nothing about this, and I wish the cover of the book hadn’t given away what was coming.