Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. Philomel, 2016
The sinking of the Nazi passenger ship Wilhelm Gustloff, killing an estimated 9,000 evacuees escaping the advancing Russian army in the last days of WWII, inspired this riveting, haunting novel. Joanna and Emilia are refugees; Florian is on the run for reasons he won’t reveal. All three teens are desperate to reach the Polish port where German ships are waiting. Each is struggling with a secret and all are damaged by what they’ve experienced, unable to easily trust, but they form a makeshift family with other travelers. Teenage Alfred is a Nazi sailor at the port. Reviled by peers for his self-importance, he also exhibits sociopathic behavior that is, in its way, a personification of facism. The fates of the other three intertwine with Alfred after their harrowing journey to the port culminates in discovery of thousands more refugees than the waiting ships can possibly carry. Short chapters moving back and forth among the four points of view makes for a swiftly paced story in which the characters are revealed in how they interact and through internal reflection that also illuminates their backstories. Oppression under Stalin, Nazi greed, the brutality of war, and the intriguing mystery of the legendary Amber Room are all part of a tense, tragic novel in which the fate of the ship will not be changed by fiction, even as some fictional characters do survive. An author’s note gives more information about the Wilhelm Gustloff tragedy and other factual elements of the narrative. ©2016 Cooperative Children’s Book Center
Start some conversation with these discussion prompts:
- Bravery and patriotism can be defined in different ways, in different contexts. How do the characters differ in their representations of bravery and patriotism in Salt to the Sea?
- Had you previously heard of the historical events depicted in this book? Why do you think you may have or have not heard about these events?
- When told that the soldiers “with a strong chance of survival will be embarked” upon the Wilhelm Gustloff, and Alfred says: “Quite wise. Leave the browned cabbage in the basket. It makes no sense to save a head with only a few good leaves.” How does this reflect the Nazi view of humanity? How is this view flawed? Would he pass as a healthy cabbage?