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Why You Shouldn’t Skip WW2 Novel, Salt to the Sea

Are you looking for a YA holocaust book that uncovers lesser-known World War 2 history and the effects of war on teenagers? Don’t miss Salt To The Sea by Ruta Sepetys. We’ll share our Salt To The Sea summary, book review, favorite quotes, and so much more.

Salt to the Sea book review and summary with book cover and blue waves in the ocean

CW: Rape, child death, teen pregnancy, and violence

Hesitant To Read Salt To The Sea By Ruta Sepetys?

Salt to the Sea is a title that I have quietly avoided for years. Drowning is one of my worst nightmares, and I struggle to read sinking ship stories. Chalk up this fear to a life of terrible swimming skills and awful childhood pool memories. Plus, boats make me yak.

Although a young adult novel, I knew Salt to the Sea would be graphic and tragic, especially since Sepetys focuses on children and teens during WWII. Not to mention that the sinking of the IRL Wilhelm Gustoff is at the heart of this story.

Warning: Salt To The Sea is not an easy read. But should you read it? YES!

Why Salt To The Sea Is An Essential WW2 History Novel

Before reading Salt To The Sea, I had never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff, questioned why this was the case since its sinking surpassed Titanic tragedy numbers, and wanted to know more.

Plus, before we traveled to the Baltics on a whirlwind road trip tour around Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, I craved more Baltic and eastern European history. Growing up I had no idea where these countries even landed on a map.

By the end, Salt to the Sea met up to its gut-wrenching reputation. Readers bear witness to Hitler and Stalin both savagely tearing apart Poland.  Not to mention, we watch the Soviets’ advanced reign of terror on the Baltic states.

By sharing the stories of 4 teens from different areas surrounding the Baltic Sea, Sepetys asks readers to remember and honor these brave and innocent souls. Most importantly, Sepetys sheds light and gives voice to an overshadowed part of history that deserves so much more attention.

Ready for a breakdown of the book? Want to know more? Let’s get started.

Salt to the Sea Ruta Sepetys Book Review and Summary with book cover with stormy dark sea and a life preserver

Salt To The Sea Book Information

Author: Ruta Sepetys
Publisher: Philomel Books
Publication Date: February 2016
Genre: YA Historical Fiction | Holocaust Book For Teens
Pages: 400

Find Your Copy Of Salt To The Sea On Amazon

Don’t forget to check out The Uncorked Librarian’s free discussion guide for Salt To The Sea.

Salt To The Sea Characters

Salt To The Sea introduces readers to four very different characters during World War 2:

1. Joana

A young Lithuanian nurse, Joana flees from her home, leaving behind her family.  She is brave, selfless, and a skilled, multilingual nurse.  Empathy and compassion pour from her soul.  Part of Joana’s story is a crossover with Between Shades of Grey, Sepetys other infamous YA Baltic novel.

2. Florian

A wandering Prussian boy on a secret mission filled with revenge and pain, Florian possesses hidden artistical talents.  He is mysterious, handsome, and cautious.  An orphan of war, he must choose whose side he is on while remaining alive.  Emilia coins Florian as “The Knight.”

Through Florian, we learn that are numerous meanings to the word “prince” and “hero” and that even young men can help save the world.

3. Emilia

Emilia is a young Polish girl who impersonates a dead Latvian woman to stay alive. Pregnant and scared, she has seen more atrocities than most.  Like the red coat in Schindler’s List, readers will never forget Emilia’s pink hat in a grey world.

4. Alfred

Alfred is the German ‘soldier’ who you just want to slug. You know you were thinking it too. Alfred is an entitled, weak, and self-disillusioned young man in Hitler’s army. 

Alfred’s character offers one perspective of the German youth mindset and his naivety plays into the role of propaganda during the war.

Somehow, Alfred brings a comical aspect to the hideous nature of war.  Man, what a sexist pig and momma’s boy, though.  He mentally writes embellished letters to the Jewish crush he betrayed. Yup, read that sentence again.

Salt To The Sea Book Review, Summary, and Characters Pinterest pin with book covers
Add Salt To The Sea by Ruta Sepetys to your TBR list. Pin this book review, character analysis, and summary for later.

Salt To The Sea Summary

These four unlikely characters meet in 1945 as three of them flee Soviet advances as the Nazi regime collapses. 

Trapped between deadly leadership, Emilia, Florian, and Joana make their way to the port, looking for safe passage to Kiel, Germany.  Along the way, they add to their entourage of refugees a giant woman, blind girl, shoe poet, and parentless child. Quite the motley and lovable crew.

Throughout the deadly journey, the team faces bombs, cruel soldiers, and a sea of ice.  They seek shelter in abandoned buildings and homes. 

Unfortunately, you know that not everyone will make it–this is historical fiction based largely on true accounts.  The youth starve and handle near-fatal injuries while trying to find light in a simple berry or abandoned fireplace dance.

Once the youth arrive at the port, they face even more danger and hardships than on their trek there.  Everyone wants to escape the Soviet soldiers, but there is not enough room. 

Desperation leads to more death and utter devastation.  Emaciated pets wander the streets.  Mothers attempt to throw babies on the ship, accidentally bouncing them off the sides to their early demise.

Even ensconced on the safety of warm boats, fleeing families face Soviet attacks and death.  Heartless submarines lurk, not caring who they shred apart.

Not Quite A Spoiler, Salt To The Sea Addresses A True Story: The Wilhelm Gustloff

*If you haven’t heard about the Wilhelm Gustloff, you may want to skip this minor spoiler.*

The three youth plus the shoe poet and small child receive passage on the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship meant for around 1,500 people. 

Once a glorious luxury boat, the gutted ship’s sole purpose is to transport wounded soldiers, women, and children.  Now filled with over 10,000 refugees, the Wilhelm Gustloff has barely any walking room let alone proper life vests and boats.

Here, the teenagers run into the odd Alfred, who both helps and hurts them.

Shot down by Stalin’s torpedoes soon after departure, passengers find themselves trapped below deck on a quickly sinking boat.  Even those with life vests will freeze to death within minutes of the chilly water.

Who will live? And how will those who perished be remembered?  Historically, less than 1,000 passengers survived the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.

You can learn more about the Wilhelm Gustloff here.

Salt To The Sea Review: Is This Baltic Book For You?

If you like survival stories, historical fiction, or WWII narratives, Salt to the Sea will intrigue and capture your heart.  Although YA, this title will flood your soul. 

Few authors truly capture the stark effects of war on youth–especially children who have no one to help them through it. You learn how fast the war forces teenagers to grow up.

As an undergrad history major, I had never once heard or read about the Wilhelm Gustloff.  Leo didn’t star in a movie even though this story is by far more disastrous. For some reason, the Baltic stories get left out of mostly eurocentric histories.  And why is that?

Many of the facts about the Wilhelm Gustloff are accurate.  Historians will enjoy reading a little more about the Amber Room and Operation Hannibal, too.

Salt to the Sea also provides insight into what was once Prussia and how Poland fared during the war.  Introduced to Lithuanian culture and history, I know that while traveling in Vilnius and Kaunas, I thought of Joana.

A powerful and unforgettable read, if you read nothing else about the Baltics or WW2 this year, I’d pick up Salt to the Sea.

Salt To The Sea Title Meaning

Since originally writing this Salt To The Sea book review, I received many emails and DMs asking me about what I think the Salt To The Sea‘s title means. Of course, I always wonder if I am doing some sneaky teenager’s homework assignment for them when I respond.

I have many interpretations of the phrase ‘salt to the sea,” and towards the end of the novel, Sepetys uses that exact phrase in one of her chapters.

Throughout this WW2 novel, we realize how much bigger the world is and our small part in it. War takes away personality–with the goal to dehumanize–just like salt blends and dissolves into the sea.

Sepetys’ mission is to bring these quiet but powerful stories to life. As salt is lost in the sea, so are the passengers and their tales on the Gustloff.

Plus, salt is essential to the sea just like how love, friendship, and family is essential to humanity–which is now lost at sea.

You could see the salt as tears or even think about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff where people return back to the sea of which we were born. The sea is made more tumultuous by war. The interpretations, to me, are truly endless with no answer being more or less correct.

What do you think is the meaning in Salt To The Sea’s title? Let us know in the comments.

5 Thought-Provoking & Powerful Salt To The Sea Book Quotes

You can always find a plethora of book quote gold in Sepetys’ books, and Salt To The Sea has many quotes worthy of attention. Here are a few that I enjoy:

“What had human beings become? Did war make us evil or just activate an evil already lurking within us?”

Salt To The Sea by Ruta Sepetys

“War is catastrophe. It breaks families in irretrievable pieces. But those who are gone are not necessarily lost.”

Salt To The Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Salt To The Sea Ruta Sepetys Quote, "I wept because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet."

“I wept because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”

Salt To The Sea by Ruta Sepetys

“Your daughter, your sister. She is salt to the sea…”

Salt To The Sea by Ruta Sepetys

“War had bled color from everything, leaving nothing but a storm of gray.”

Salt To The Sea by Ruta Sepetys

About Salt To The Sea Author, Ruta Sepetys

Ruta Sepetys writes novels with the goal to shed light on underrepresented stories and histories. 

The daughter of a refugee and “seeker of lost stories,” Sepetys wrote Between Shades of Gray, one of her most famous novels now made into a movie.  Between Shades of Grey is about a family pulled from their Lithuanian home by Soviet guards and their survival story. 

Read more about Ruta Sepetys and check out Between Shades of Gray.

If You Like Salt To The Sea, Try These YA Novels:

Best World War II Novels The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
The Warrior Maiden by Melanie Dickerson book cover
YA WWII Novel The Book Thief By Markus Zusak movie version book cover with blonde girl

The Boy In The Striped Pajamas by John Boyne – Just like Alfred buys into Hitler’s propaganda, watch as Bruno makes a deadly acquaintance as he plays with a young boy wearing these funny blue striped pajamas.

The Warrior Maiden by Melanie Dickerson – Not a WW2 story but a classic Mulan fairytale retelling, watch as Lithuanian Mulan disguises herself as a man to fight stereotypes and the Teutonic Knights.

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak – Another Holocaust book for teens, Death narrates the story of a young and adopted book thief who befriends the Jewish man hiding in the basement.

Other Book Lists With Novels Similar To Salt To The Sea:

Best Books About World War 2 For Adults & History Lovers
Holocaust Books For High School & Middle School Readers
36+ WW2 Historical Fiction Books
Baltic Books To Inspire Your Next Vacation
Historical Fiction Featuring Amazing Women

More Baltic Book Reviews:

Indelible by Adelia Saunders
The Warrior Maiden by Melanie Dickerson

What Did You Think Of Salt To The Sea After Reading It?

If you read this Salt To The Sea book review and summary and later picked up the book, please let us know your final thoughts in the comments.

Ossama Alnuwaiser

Wednesday 24th of June 2020

Sepetys’ Between Shades of Grey sounds familiar. I am familiar with Building Your StoryBrand, but I have never read it.

It is good that you don't. I actually have not eaten for a long time.

You probably familiar with Milech gladwell and his books like outlier. Another of my favorite is The irresistible pall of irrational behavior. I cannot remmber the author's name, but I know they are two brothers. You will love it.

Christine

Friday 26th of June 2020

Awesome! Thanks for sharing!

Ossama alnuwaiser

Friday 22nd of May 2020

I love this book. It is by far my favorite. I just finished reading it. I was curious what others think about it. That's how it lead me to your blog. Looking at what happened in the past, and how people had worse than us make you rethink about the situation. I mean we are staying home and safe during this epidemic, and there are people who are running away for their lives. Off course, my heart goes to those who got lost. It makes me think about the 9300 people who got lost in the sea and the many more at their homes. It is totally an eye opening. I cannot complain about quarantine, anymore. There is so much to say about it, but I do not want to spoit anymore of it. I really recommend reading it for those who have not.

Looking forward to read more.

Christine

Sunday 24th of May 2020

I am so glad that you loved Salt to the Sea. I just love Ruta Sepetys, and I agree, it's a wonderful novel. Have you read other Sepetys' books?

And yes, stories like Salt to the Sea give us all such a strong perspective on life and history. You must love reading historical fiction, too, like me!

Yes, this pandemic is certainly something, and like you, when I feel ready to complain or am restless, I just remember how fortunate I am. I have a lot to be grateful for, and eventually, this period in history will be over. Thanks so much for sharing and for the thoughtful comment.

jeanne

Monday 26th of August 2019

Thank you for taking the time to respond, Christine. I appreciate your thoughts on my question.

As I was reading I kept an eye out for the title as I knew it would appear. Yes, toward the end it does, but not in a manner that gave me further info on the why. I, too, thought about our tears adding to the saltiness of the sea. And I know that we need to consume some salt in order to live a healthy life. I also thought of Gandhi and his march to the sea. I will try reaching out to Ruta.

Christine

Monday 26th of August 2019

Those also seem like pretty valid interpretations too. I studied South Asian history as my history concentration in undergrad. It's been years since I read Gandhi. I should do some re-reading.

jeanne

Saturday 24th of August 2019

I am seeking some insight. I am trying to determine why Sepetys chose "Salt to the Sea" as the title. Do the dead add salt to the sea when they drown? Are the bodies seen metaphorically as seasoning? (That sounds so crass.) This short phrase is a prime example of the importance of using the right preposition.

Christine

Monday 26th of August 2019

Hey Jeanne,

I wish that I still had a copy of Salt to the Sea. I got mine from the library. I know somewhere towards the end of the novel, the expression actually pops up in the book. When I read it, the expression made so much more sense to me, but gosh-darned if I can remember my exact thoughts. Septeys is active on Twitter, so maybe you can drop her a line and ask her.

I definitely think your interpretation of "salt to the sea" is one way to look at it. I also think that salt is essential to the sea and the book could be stressing elements that are essential to love, loss, forgiveness, and humanity. At one point, I remember thinking about crying into the sea too--the sea represents hope and unfortunately, it also symbolizes getting lost into the sea (just as these women and children were lost in history).

Does that help? Or seem fitting? Just a few ideas.

Kathy

Wednesday 27th of March 2019

Wow, this book seems heavy on the heart.

Christine

Thursday 28th of March 2019

Yes! I actually had to peek at the end halfway through...I thought: please let one of these characters be one of the survivors or I'm going to sob all night.