Published by Philomel Books on February 2nd 2016
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Narrator: Cassandra Morris, Jorjeana Marie, Michael Crouch, Will Damron
Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.
Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.
As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.
Yet not all promises can be kept.
Inspired by the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, bestselling and award-winning author Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray) lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II. An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope.
This is one of those epic historical fictions that everyone should read. It’s a story that’s almost been lost to history but because one of the author’s family members narrowly missed being a passenger on the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, it’s a story that wont be lost. NPR did a really great interview with author Ruta Sepety talking about her family connection and the history behind Salt to the Sea.
This in a story and book that I went into knowing that it might not have a happy ending. Spoiler alert, the boat sinks, it has a crazy Titanic moment, and 9,000 people die, so knew I’d probably need some tissues at the end. But I was not prepared at how wrecked I was when I finished it. I’ve watched Titanic the movie countless times and have no issues, so I thought I’d be fine, I’d be moved, but fine, not the case. Sepety’s description of the boat’s demise is beautifully written and crafted and it’s heart breaking and will probably leave you wrecked. So now that I talked about the end of the book, well not really the end, but the turning point in our character’s lives for sure, let’s talk about how our characters go to be on the Gustloff.
The book is told from the point of view of four characters, the audiobook has a different narrator for each, it’s very well done. Our four teens, Joana, Emilia, Florian and Alfred, have their stories converge along their path that leads them to their fates on the Gustloff. Joana, Emilia and Florian are all refugees feeling the advancing Russian Army. The three are brought together while feeling, each with their own secrets. These three make their way to the coastline with a small group of other refugees that are just as well crafted as our four main characters. The shoe poet, a cobbler of pretty great skill, was probably my favorite. Sepety’s could totally write a book of “shoe poems” based on him and I’d totally read it. Alfred is a unique character, I’m totally curious to know why he was included, because by the end you realize that he’s got some issues she we say. He’s a late drafted German soldier who’s definitely not a poster boy for the German army.
The journey our refugees take to get to the Gustloff and then experiencing the sinking of the boat is powerful, moving and not one that’s really addressed in many books, or at least not many that I’ve read on WWII. In the US we tend to get stories of great heroism by soldiers and civilians, but if it’s German WWII history it’s focused on the military, Hitler and the government. We don’t get a lot of stories of what it was like for the German civilians who, in the final days of the war, were fleeing their homes to avoid the Russian Army. So it was eye opening to see this side of history, the “human” side if you will that shows every day people just trying to live their life while the world is exploding around them.
The four narrators, Jorjeana Marie, Will Damron, Cassandra Morris, Michael Crouch, for this story really brought it to life. I’m very glad that Listening Library went with this instead of one narrator with different voices. The chapters are sometimes quite short and when you’re listening to the audio version, you sometimes miss the announcement of which character each chapter is following. So to have four distinct voices and takes on these characters really helped the story and as a reader.