Salt to the Sea

Ruta Sepetys

Salt to the Sea
Penguin Books Ltd
United Kingdom
16 May 2016

Salt to the Sea

Ruta Sepetys

Winner of the Carnegie Medal 2017

It’s early 1945 and a group of people trek across Germany, bound together by their desperation to reach the ship that can take them away from the war-ravaged land. Four young people, each haunted by their own dark secret, narrate their unforgettable stories. Fans of The Book Thief or Helen Dunmore’s The Siege will be totally absorbed.

This inspirational novel is based on a true story from the Second World War. When the German ship the Wilhelm Gustloff was sunk in port in early 1945 it had over 9000 civilian refugees, including children, on board. Nearly all were drowned. Ruta Sepetys, acclaimed author of Between Shades of Grey, brilliantly imagines their story.


Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres but it’s beset with challenges and tricky to get right.

Bringing history to life is a herculean task: you must somehow condense mammoth amounts of factual material down to the essential ingredients – and that’s before you even start creating a story – then you have to invent new characters and scenarios to weave into a compelling tale steeped in history but not bogged down by facts.

It must be harder still to tell a true story that is overwhelming in its enormity yet almost completely unknown by all but a few historians. It’s especially ambitious to imagine one of the worst disasters in maritime history through the eyes of four different characters, all the while switching tracks to keep the audience completely engaged. That must be challenging for both the storyteller and the reader, so it takes an author as accomplished as Ruta Sepetys (who’s probably best known for her award-winning debut novel, Between Shades of Gray) to pull it off.

Set in 1945, Salt to the Sea is a fast-paced narrative of short and breathtakingly sharp chapters. The story is skilfully revealed through the lives of interesting and deftly drawn characters of different ages and backgrounds whose different viewpoints allow the reader a diverse, and ultimately more satisfying, appreciation of events. Although from different origins, each of the four young people are tormented in similar ways; haunted by war and harbouring terrible secrets, their stories are dark and moving but intensely compelling. This is an enthralling work of historical fiction which thrusts little known events from 1945, involving thousands of refugees, onto centre stage. It compels the reader to attention and to ask questions such as: Why didn’t I know about this? Why has no one told this story before?

Highly recommended for ages 13 and up.

Athina Clarke

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