Book Review: Salt to the Sea

Author: Ruta Sepetys
Publisher: Philomel Books
ISBN: 9780399160301
Genre: Historical YA


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

Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people—adults and children alike—aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.


This is a wonderfully written story about four young people, ranging in ages and backgrounds, set during World War Two, detailing all the horrors and ravages of war, and its effects on those struggling to survive. Vivid and sometimes, horrific moments punctate the spare prose of each character’s short chapters.

The four main characters: Florian (the Knight) a young Prussian with a mysterious stolen artefact, Joana, a Lithuanian nurse, and Emilia, an idealistic and damaged Polish girl who, at 15, is pregnant after being raped by Russian soldiers.

A fact we learn slowly over the course of the book, like many other heartbreaking details about each character’s life. Their family, friends, and the tragedy each carries within them: secrets that weight them all down. Too young to carry such a heavy burden, but forced to by circumstances and war. The brutality that’s thrust upon them, and how each, in their own way, is forced to deal with pain unimaginable. The guilt and the shame they carry, never mind the horrors they have witnessed.

Despite the heavy weight subject, and the gruesome descriptions, we’re also offered a great deal of hope and light and small acts of heroism. Especially through the philosophical wisdom of the old Shoe Poet, whose positivity and moments of observational humour breaks up some of the bleakness. Sorry Eva too manages to momentarily divert us with her straightforward comments, opinionated about everything and everyone.

But the main focus are the four intersection stories of Florian, Joana, Emilia and Alfred, a young sailor who spends a great deal of time lost in his head narrating letters he’ll never write, to a girl from his childhood.

I loved the alternating chapters and the alternating points of view. Sepetys carefully weaves historical facts into what is a fictional account, and gives us glimpses of what life was like for those fleeing two mighty armies hellbent on destruction, at any cost: including the lives of innocent children.

Her prose perfectly captures the heartbreak and sets a tone we can relate too—whatever our age—to these four young people struggling for survival. Some of them will make it, others will not be so lucky. Sadly history tells us about the ship our characters were escaping to, the Wilhelm Gustloff, which was torpedoed by the Soviets in January 1945 with over 10,500 people onboard, more than 9,000 of whom perished in the frozen sea that fateful day.

Moving and uncomfortable, heartbreaking and yet, at times, also uplifting, SALT TO THE SEA is a look into what happens to displaced people, lost in the cracks of history, forgotten, and gives them a gentle, insistent ‘voice’ to be heard, by us, the reader.

Rating: 9.5 / 10

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  1. What a great review!

    • January 9, 2020

      Thanks, Meggy. I really enjoyed reading this one, and have put this author on my Go To list, it really was a powerful read.

  2. Beware Of The Reader
    January 7, 2020

    YESSSSSSSSSSSS! Perfect review Alexandra and I am so happy that you loved it as mush as I did!

    • Alexandra
      January 7, 2020

      Indeed, Sophie, it was because of your suggestion, I found this one and now love the author too!

  3. This book’s been on my radar for a while and the info about the story and the characters you’ve given me only makes me want to read it even more. I had no idea so many died then and there, I’m sure it’s going to shred my heart when I read it too!

    • Alexandra
      January 7, 2020

      It’s a very powerful read, Inge, and I think this is just the kind of book you like to read, compelling characters, an unprecedented situations, and yes, it will probably break your heart too. But, believe me, it is a worthwhile journey.

  4. January 7, 2020

    Ah, i keep confusing this book with another one, also something about salty seas.
    And such a high praise from you! <3 Lovely review. I decided i will try and read some more historical fiction this year, so will defo consider this one 🙂

    • Alexandra
      January 7, 2020

      It really is worth it, and as you know, I do like a really good deliciously set historical now and then. I especially love them set in Elizabethan times, which I’m obsessed with. I you give Sepetys a try, Norrie.

  5. Oh, I’m so glad you loved this, Alexandra💜 I have got to figure out how to fit this in sometime soon.

    • Alexandra
      January 6, 2020

      It was Sophie who put me onto reading this one, so I gave it a go, and I am so glad I did. It really is a heartbreaker and yet, so uplifting too. I now have to make sure I read more of this author’s work. I hope you give this one a listen too.

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