Salt to the Sea

by Ruta Sepetys

2016 Winner · Young Adult Fiction

Nominated by: Compass Book Ratings
Finalist blurb: As the Nazi Reich collapses and the Soviet army sweeps across the East Prussian countryside in the winter of 1945, three young refugees find themselves thrown together among the crowds of desperate, uprooted travellers. The distinctive voices and histories of Joana ("the nurse"), Florian ("the knight"), and Emilia ("the Polish girl")—each guarding painful secrets—create a harrowing picture of the lives thrown into tumult by the war. A fourth narrative voice, the self-aggrandizing declarations of a young Nazi soldier named Alfred, adds an unsettling counterpoint to the narrative. The fates of the four narrators will converge at the doomed MV Wilhelm Gustloff, a German ship targeted by Russian submarines. Ruta Sepetys brings authenticity and heart to this moving, gorgeously realized work of historical fiction.
— Melissa Wiley, Here in the Bonny Glen
Winner blurb:

This harrowing historical novel follows the lives of three young refugees seeking freedom and safety in East Prussia as World War II nears its end: Lithuanian Joana, a nurse burdened by guilt; pregnant, Polish Emilia; and Prussian Florian, a German army deserter carrying a valuable secret. A bumbling, delusional young Nazi soldier, Alfred, also narrates from aboard the doomed ship Wilhelm Gustloff—the eventual destination of the three protagonists and their small band of traveling companions. The ship, packed far beyond capacity with thousands of desperate refugees, is struck by Soviet torpedoes in the icy Baltic Sea. Joana, Emilia, Florian and the others must draw from their nearly tapped-out resilience as they try to survive the greatest maritime disaster in history.

Meticulously researched and brilliantly written, this stunning and devastating story will captivate readers. Sepetys shines a light into the everyday life of the citizens of Nazi Germany and the occupied areas, with many parallels to the modern-day refugee crisis. Each character has secrets that unfold gradually and converge with others in unexpected ways, showing the varied effects of war on the average person. The narrative voices are distinct, well-drawn, and, with the exception of Alfred (a vile coward who fulfills a necessary role), sympathetic. Even secondary characters, such as the Shoe Poet and the young orphan boy, are vivid and compelling. Tightly paced and filled with constant peril and action, the story moves quickly, with the rotating viewpoints and short chapters aiding in the momentum. Though the setting is one of overwhelming tragedy, the growing connections between the courageous travelers render the narrative less bleak. This powerful, haunting, and immensely readable novel has wide appeal. Readers will not soon forget Sepetys’s vivid characters or the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff.