Ruta Sepetys’s riveting novel Salt to the Sea (Philomel, $18.99) is a haunting reminder of an almost-forgotten disaster and the resilience of the human spirit.
In the final months of the Nazi regime, three people — Joana, a young Lithuanian nurse; Emilia, a Polish teenager; and Florian, a Prussian art preservationist — are fleeing Germany together. As with thousands of others, they are desperately seeking safe passage, perhaps to the United States, on one of the German ships conscripted for this purpose: the Wilhelm Gustloff. Can they trust one another? Their terrible losses and secrets make them wary. When they reach the ship, they must deal with Alfred, a punctilious Nazi soldier, and a cruise ship dangerously over capacity. Suspense builds as Sepetys alternates short chapters from the perspectives of each of these characters and slowly reveals their fears and entangled fates.
As she did in her first novel, “Between Shades of Gray,” Sepetys skillfully weaves history into her story, here grounding her nuanced characters in the events of winter 1945. Vivid details punctuate the spare prose: a starving man eating a candle, the “crippled doors” of looted homes. But there are moments of grace and camaraderie, too. This is a young adult novel sophisticated enough for adults, too.