Tuesday, January 26, 2016

[Review] Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Version: ARC Paperback
Rating: 5 stars
Published: February 2nd 2016

Goodreads Synopsis:
In 1945, World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia, and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, almost all of them with something to hide. Among them are  Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer toward safety.

Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.
 I received this ARC from Miss Print's (Emma) ARC Adoption over here! Thank you Emma for this amazing book.

If there was a book to remind me why I love history and historical fiction in particular, Salt to the Sea would be the one. What I love about historical fiction is that it brings to life and brings awareness to certain time periods or events that were brushed over in textbooks, and captivates readers so it's not just facts or dates being rolled off, but actual immersion in the time period being portrayed. But, I'll save my love of this genre for another time.

Salt to the Sea takes place shortly before World War II's end, and let's think about what we learned in history class about WWII. They say that history is written by the victors, so we often read history from a very biased viewpoint. Ruta Sepetys's offers a new viewpoint, those of the refugees, the ones who were approved by Hitler for "Germanization". The story is told between four alternating POV's, each with different stories and secrets to tell.

Joana Vilkas, Emilia, and Florian Beck are all from different backgrounds, different countries, and have their reasons for escaping the warfront. We don't know their secrets in the beginning, but as time goes on, they must trust each other to survive. Alfred Frick, on the other hand, suffers from delusions of grandeur, believing himself to be the perfect soldier to Hitler's and the Nazi Party's cause.

This book raises the continuous question of morality during the war, of all the sacrifices made during the war, how war itself is not black-and-white. Writing a story from the perspectives of innocent people gives you a deeper understanding of war. Is the winning side always the good side? Can it even be said there's a good side, with so many innocent lives lost?
Emilia: But how long could I play this game? A ploy of war both outside and inside. What would happen if I actually made it to the West? Would I be able to reveal myself as Emilia Stozek, a girl from Lwow? Would Germany be safe for me?
Once the war ended, which side would be the right side for a Pole?
Florian: What would it mean to be German after the war? What would it mean to be Prussian? 

The alternating POV's are all short, three to four pages each, but the effect couldn't have been more powerful. The opening lines for the first of each of their POV chapters showed their ghosts. Each chapter flowed into the other, even Alfred's. The occasional repetition in such simple, short sentences gave the added effect of drawing me in even more. The simple prose is exquisite.
Joana: "Guilt is a hunter."
Florian: "Fate is a hunter."
Emilia: "Shame is a hunter."
Alfred: "Fear is a hunter."
Even with the constant alternating POVs, which leaves us little time to learn about each character, I fell in love with almost all of them (sorry Alfred, you poor, delusional kid). Florian, Joana, and Emilia, all showed their strength in different ways. Their stories pulled at my heartstrings and felt so real I was wondering at points if they really existed. 

I loved how Sepetys told multiple stories within this one story. The stories of the refugees tells this bigger story, of the sinking and destruction of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff. Before reading this, I never heard of this maritime disaster. Following reading Salt to the Sea, I wish this was written in the textbooks! It was a bigger disaster than the Titanic or Lusitania, with 9000+ lives lost, most of them refugees escaping the war. And when you learn it was a result of Russian bombing, you'll once again question the point of war.

I highly recommend this book. Reading it has reinvigorated me into loving history and historical fiction once more. Even if you aren't a history aficionado, Salt to the Sea opens you up to events you never hear about, and fills you up with emotions and questions. You're left wanting more, and I can't wait to read more of Sepetys's works!

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