Historical fiction is a high-wire act. Above the abyss of extensive research and relentless detail, the author must balance the demands of plot and character with her commitment to the realities of history.
Ruta Sepetys is no stranger to this feat. In her previous novels, "Between Shades of Gray" and "Out of the Easy," she effectively married facts and fiction to bring readers memorable protagonists who were defined by, yet also triumphed over, the weight of their historical circumstances.
Her latest novel, Salt to the Sea (recommended for readers Grades 8+), is even more daring. In this World War II story, set during the sunset hours of the terrible conflict, Sepetys effectively spins a tale that is equal parts romance, thriller, and real life dystopia – while chronicling the toll of war on ordinary people, and bringing to life the deadliest disaster in maritime history.
All of which makes "Salt to the Sea" sound much heavier than it actually is. In fact, the narrative is surprisingly fleet-footed, thanks in large part to Sepetys’s decision to narrate the story from the perspectives of four different characters. Chapters are short, shifting rapidly from one point of view to another. This clever tactic allows Sepetys to represent the breadth of the conflict, even as she keeps readers engaged.
"Salt to the Sea" opens in the winter of 1945 as thousands of refugees – many of them children and teens without families – make their desperate trek toward freedom. Among them are Joana, Florian, and Emilia: a nurse, a thief, and a girl with a secret. Well, all three have secrets – scars from a war that stole their innocence, their families, and their homelands.
But each in their own way, all three teens hold out hope that the war that has taken so much will not also take their futures. So they march on through East Prussia, while the Russians close in from one side, and the Germans fight to maintain the “purity” of their race.
Sepetys sets out to tell the stories of the lost, and she succeeds: In many ways, this is a novel about every displaced person who fell prey to the toll of war. But at its heart, this is Joana and Florian’s story – a tale of their uneasy alliance, and their budding attraction. Perhaps this is the one place where the narrative makes a slight misstep. As the story veers into the waters of teen romance, it’s easy to forget that this is historical fiction. Although teachers and librarians who have lamented teens’ lack of interest in history may appreciate the hook that the romance in this novel provides.
But even the longing looks and the breathy exchanges aren’t enough to blot out the terror of these characters’ circumstances. The danger in the story is constant and real. Although one of the things Sepetys does so well is to move deftly between scenes of catastrophe and moments of grace that give the narrative both emotional depth and light. These glimmers of goodness, crafted with such tenderness, are characteristic of all Sepetys’s stories. But in a novel like "Salt to the Sea," which tackles horrors of such magnitude, they’re particularly effective. The shoe poet – an elderly cobbler who dispenses wisdom as he mends the soles of lost souls – is Sepetys’s finest creation. He is the voice of insight, of hope, and of heart that speaks to the promise of enduring humanity, even in the midst of inconceivable suffering.
"Salt to the Sea" is billed as an account of the greatest maritime disaster in history, so it would be remiss not to mention the final act in this story. The truth is, however, that by the time readers get to the port – to the frantic crowds and their desperate attempts to board a ship to safety – there’s already been so much destruction that it’s difficult not to feel numb to the much-advertised catastrophe. Descriptions of pandemonium on the ship, and the loss of several key characters, do reconnect readers to the emotional pulse of the narrative. But most affecting are the scenes prior to the torpedo attack, when one of the three teen protagonists is allowed a few moments to reflect on the proximity of safety – a “happy ending” of sorts after a journey that seemed endless.
Of course, the majority of the passengers on the Wilhelm Gustloff did not meet with a happy ending – their visions of freedom drowned by the Russians in an icy sea. But there is redemption for a few. The final dance on the high wire is a conclusion to a tragic story that offers closure without cloying perfection.
This Sepetys accomplishes with the grace and skill of a writer who understands both her material and her readers.
Jenny Sawyer is co-founder of the educational website www.60secondrecap.com and writes frequently about children's literature.