Title: Salt to the Sea
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Publisher: Philomel Books
Release Date: February 2nd 2016
Ruta Sepetys’s Salt to the Sea is a moving historical fiction novel that takes its time unfolding the mysteries of each character. Not being familiar with this particular historical event, I went into this knowing very little. Told through alternate points of view, each chapter gives a small glimpse into the four main characters: Joana, Florian, Emilia, and Alfred. It took some time to get used to the abrupt change in narration, as Sepetys only spends a few pages on each character before moving on. However, once you get acquainted with these characters, they hold your attention to the breathtaking end.
It bears noting that the synopsis for this novel is a little incorrect, as two of the four characters are adults and one specifically is twenty one. It doesn’t make much of a difference, but it put me in a different mindset when trying to get a handle on who these characters were. Joana’s story centers around the guilt she carries around. It isn’t revealed until later what she feels guilty about, but it’s a burden that weighs heavy on her. Her training as a nurse makes her irrevocably valuable to those she is traveling with and also opens doors for her and her companions to escape a terrible fate. When we first meet Florian, he’s standoffish and cold. Much of who he is is kept hidden, but as his journey has him crossing paths with the other characters, he slowly opens up. Florian’s connection to characters like Joana and Emilia is hard fought, he resisting most of all, but it is these relationships that play a vital role in how his journey will end.
Emilia is young and desperate. Trying to hide the fact that she is Polish becomes increasingly difficult, but meeting Florian and then Joana may give her a chance to survive in a world where her people have suffered so much at the hands of by both German and Soviet forces. She is both brave and a little naive, but her resilience defines her above all else. Alfred is the only character that I was confused about. Much of his narrative just felt like a young, confused kid running his mouth, not realizing how truly insignificant he was. It wasn’t until later on in the story that I fully understood his role. Though this was a deliberate technique on the author’s part, there were times when Alfred’s POV came up and I really didn’t feel very interested in his perspective.
Salt to the Sea is full of heartbreak, but also exemplifies the power of the human spirit in the face of unspeakable cruelty and tragedy.