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SPOILER ALERT!!!

It is the tail end of World War II. Throughout the war, the Germans headed east through Poland and Prussia while the Soviets headed west through Lithuania and Prussia, destroying everything in their path. The result, hundreds of thousands of displaced persons. Truth be told, both armies showed a barbarism that is unequaled.

SaltToTheSea

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys folds the wandering of refugees into the story of the “deadliest disaster in maritime history, with losses dwarfing the death tolls of the famous ships Titanic and Lusitania.” Told in first person by four dramatically different people, the plight of refugees is vividly told by the characters and experienced by the readers.

Emilia, a¬†pregnant Polish teenager, is saved from the rape of a Russian soldier by Florian, a disillusioned and deserting German soldier who has taken retribution against his superiors for their duplicity. Joana, a Lithuanian, is traveling to find her mother after years of separation. Alfred is a foolish, dimwitted German soldier who has seen the light of Hitler’s words and fancies himself medal-worthy, although he is far from it.

These four end up in the port of Gotenhafen and board the evacuation ship the Wilhelm Gustloff carrying 10,000+ passengers, which was ultimately torpedoed by a Russian submarine.

Characters in Salt to the Sea run the gamut from the self-centered, fearful of everyone Eva to the selfless old shoemaker Heinz. While you can understand Eva’s survival instinct and don’t dislike her for it, it is Heinz that comes through as the shining star, the wise old man always with words of comfort and encouragement.

The alternating chapters by the four individuals works well.  The writing and storyline keep readers wanting more. Salt to the Sea is heartbreaking at times, poignant at other times, scary most of the time.

My only criticism, and it isn’t a big one, is that the background of the story is included in the Author’s Note at the end. Having very little knowledge about the war in Prussia, a little history at the outset would have been nice. However, Sepetys includes a list of resources used in researching the book which was several years in the making.

There is no happy ending because how can there be with the devastation and destruction brought about by the war? But there is hope because there are people who tend to others before themselves, although they are vastly outnumbered.

Although it is the beginning of the year, I’m sure Salt to the Sea will be on my 2016 Top Ten list.

 

 

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