Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
As you likely know, I am a happy-ending sort of reader, meaning I generally avoid books with book flap descriptions that contain a phrase like “single greatest tragedy in maritime history”. But Salt to the Sea is written by Ruta Sepetys, who is behind some of the very best historical fiction of the past five years. Whether she’s tackling Soviet labor camps or the underworld of 1950s New Orleans, a Ruta Sepetys book can open your eyes, break your heart, and still somehow reaffirm your belief in the strength of humanity in the most dire of circumstances.
Her latest book is set in the winter of 1945. World War II is nearing an end, and Joana, Florian, and Emilia are in Nazi territory, struggling against overwhelming odds to get to port and evacuate as the Soviet army approaches. Their world has been ravaged by war for the past six years and even still bombs continue to fall around them. Their paths converge and their lives are forever changed as they struggle to escape not just the present horrors but the darkness and secrets of their pasts.
Awaiting Joana, Florian, and Emilia aboard the great ship Wilhelm Gustloff is Alfred, a Nazi recruit, who has his own way of dealing with the past and present. And his own secrets. For all of them, the ship offers a glimmer of hope for the future. But as these four worlds collide we find that the end of one struggle, may just mark the beginning of the next, especially during war time...
Told from the point of view of each of the four characters, the quick, alternating chapters move the plot at high speed and build the suspense from the very first page. There is love here and heartbreak. Phenomenally researched, beautifully written, and told with aching humanity, this is Ruta Sepetys and the genre of historical fiction at their very best. You won’t be quite the same after discovering these characters or the tragedy of the Wilhem Gustloff.