Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, New York : Philomel Books, [2016]

Salt to the Sea by Ruta SepetysIn a war torn continent, the survivors and refugees of World War II are fighting for their lives. They have spent the last ten years in a state of turmoil as their countries have become battlefields and their citizens targets of persecution or Germanized.  As the Russians push into East Prussia, refugees flee in the middle of Winter to nearby ports.  Florian is amongst those fleeing, but for reasons beyond the Russian danger.  A trained art historian, Florian was apprenticed under a museum curator assigned to work to preserve art for the Germans.  Little did he know that in reality they were stealing art and smuggling it away.

When he discovers this truth, he works to prevent the Germans from acquiring the Amber Room, a priceless Russian artifact made of over six tons of amber and often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world.  Fleeing under forged papers, Florian stops a Russian soldier from assaulting a young woman.  While he doesn’t regret his decision, her insistence on staying with him on the road makes his evacuation plan harder.  When they come across another group of refugees, they seek asylum during the cold night in the same shelter where a trained doctor’s assistant amongst them, Joana, insists on treating their wounds.

When the rescued young woman, Emelie, reveals herself to be fifteen-years-old, pregnant and Polish, their likelihood of obtaining safe passage on the German vessels transporting refugees dwindles. Together this hodge-podge group must navigate through war-torn terrain under constant threat of Russian bombs, cross a frozen river, pass German inspection to obtain boarding passes, and survive the below zero temperatures of an East Prussian Winter.

This is an amazing historical fiction tale that may very well be close to reality for many of the thousands of refugees that died on the Baltic Sea. The untold story of the largest loss of life at sea, the Wilhelm Gustloff was holding somewhere around 10,000 people when it was struck by torpedoes. Over 9,000 people died as the ship sunk as ten minutes of exposure to the freezing water caused hypothermia. Ruta Sepetys has created characters that draw you into this story.  Each giving their own vast perspective of what could have been happening during this time in history. Well done.

Susana Goldman is the Interim Director of the Alamance County Public Library.  She can be reached at (336) 290-8679 or sgoldman@alamancelibraries.org.