Salt to the Sea Review: WWII Historical Fiction at its Finest

August 17, 2016 by Jenna | 5 stars, Books, Reviews

Salt to the Sea Review: WWII Historical Fiction at its FinestSalt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Published by Philomel Books on February 2nd 2016
Source: Purchased
Genres: Historical, Romance, War & Military, Young Adult
Amazon | Book Depository | Publisher | Angus & Robertson
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Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.

Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.

As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom. Yet not all promises can be kept.

Inspired by the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, bestselling and award-winning author Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray) lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II. An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope.

Historical is one of my favourite fiction genres and Salt to the Sea was everything that I love about historical fiction, with a cherry on top. It was impactful and emotional and I don’t think I could have asked for anything more.

Salt to the Sea was an extremely well researched novel. The book follows four different characters and their experiences with Operation Hannibal during WWII. They were loaded on to the Wilhelm Gustloff, a majestic ship that then met a tragic end at the hands of the Russians. This is the greatest maritime disaster in history but is largely an unknown story to most, and Ruta Sepetys does an incredible job of bringing the story to light with her own wonderful characters. Each of the characters’ stories were meaningful and heartbreaking, and I felt like I was there experiencing not only their present but also their pasts with them. We have Emilia, a Polish girl who has seen and experienced some very traumatic things in her very young 15 years of life. She’s rescued by Florian, a Prussian man with a lot of dangerous secrets and revenge on his mind. They run into Joana, a Lithuanian refugee with medical training and a heart of gold. And finally, there’s Alfred, a Nazi soldier with ambition on his mind. Their pasts were haunting and traumatic but their characters were so full of resilience and fight. Even now, my heart is swelling up with emotion as I think about how brave and strong they were in the face of danger and death.

“Just when you think this war has taken everything you loved, you meet someone and realize that somehow you still have more to give.”

The relationship between the characters were what made this book for me. Our main cast of characters were so wonderful and giving to each other (with maybe the exception of Alfred), even in a time when people were only looking out for themselves. They cared for and sacrificed for each other even when it meant putting themselves into the path of danger. The amount of love that they showed each other is just mindboggling and brings tears to my eyes. *takes a break to have a cry* I also loved the characters individually and felt a deep connection to each one of them (with the exception of Alfred). Emilia was probably my favourite character of the four perspectives in the book, but only by a hair because I loved Florian and Joana immensely too. I also really really loved some of the side characters, especially the Shoe Poet who would spout lots of wisdom that was shoe-related. The characters were just fantastic and I need to take another break to cry again.

Ruta Sepetys is a true master of words. It’s hard to comprehend how she manages to string words together into such perfect sentences that tug at your heartstrings. It was an absolutely beautiful book to read. I enjoyed all four of the perspectives in the book and appreciated the short chapters. Ruta Sepetys uses the format of the book to her advantage and has created a masterpiece.


Salt to the Sea is a brilliant and well researched YA historical fiction novel about a massive event in history that is little known and needs to be talked about more. Ruta Sepetys has done an amazing job at telling the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff and I haven’t felt this emotionally connected to a book in a long time.

Rating: 5 out of 5



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Jenna is an Aussie blogger and reader who loves to indulge in great books and great food. She is a doctor (of philosophy) and can usually be found fangirling about something, devouring delicious food, or taking a nap. You can find her on Twitter @readwithjenna and on Instagram @readingwithjenna.

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24 responses to “Salt to the Sea Review: WWII Historical Fiction at its Finest

  1. Olivia-Savannah

    I am looking forward to reading this book so much. I am so into history – I am studying it at a higher level at school at the moment. We're currently wrapping up our study of WWII so I am really interested in what this novel has to say about it. It also seems like it addresses quite a few social issues today such as the migrant problem and has a lot of relevance. And then it being well written on top of that? Oh, this sounds like a gem too good to be true!
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    • This is a total gem! I highly recommend it if you're looking for a great WWII read to supplement what you're studying 😀 Ruta Sepetys makes the characters and their story come to life and I got such a great sense of the period. It's truly wonderful!

    • Yes! WWII fiction lovers unite! It's probably one of the best ones I've read as well! Just so unique and it features an event that I've never even heard of before.

    • I hope you love it if you do pick it up! It's a super quick read and has BEAUTIFUL writing! A great story and a learning experience, all in one!

  2. THIS IS ONE OF MY FAVORITES! Ahh I'm so glad you loved this! Also I agree, I loved all the main characters except for Alfred. I wasn't really sure why he was a POV, but I guess it doesn't hurt…?

    Have you read Between Shades of Gray? I heard there was going to be a movie but I haven't gotten around to it yet!
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    • Yeah… Alfred just ruined the party XD I guess he was included because it was a different perspective and you don't often get to see the perspective of the bad guy. And it was also a really realistic perspective that I'm sure lots of Nazi youths and soldiers shared as well.

      I haven't read Between Shades of Grey yet but I've heard endless wonderful things! Will definitely be picking that one up soon because Salt to the Sea was superb.

    • Awww nooo. I've heard amazing things about Between Shades of Grey T_T. Hmmm, if it helps, Salt to the Sea is really quick to read. The chapters are pretty much all 2-3 pages long so it's possible to just fly through it in one sitting. It's not The Book Thief but it's still a great WWII fiction novel!

    • Thank you so much! You should definitely pick it up if you love historical fiction!! You won't be let down by it. It's so well researched and hits you in the feels so hard. You really need to read it 😀

  3. lekeishathebooknerd

    I agree with your thoughts. I absolutely love this, and It's one of my favorite books this year.

    • So glad you enjoyed it too, Lekeisha. But how could you not, right?! This will probably be on my favourites list of this year as well.

  4. I am sooooo glad you liked this one Jenna. I've adored this author's previous historical fiction, so I'm sure I'll love this one as much, or more. (Maybe not Alfred tho.) She just has the most well-researched, emotional reads that you can really connect to. I'm like 110% sure I'll cry when I read this one.

    • HAHA Alfred. He was so dislikeable but also very realistic. I haven't read her previous books but I'm told that everything she's written is fantastic. I hope you pick it up because FEELS.

  5. I completely agree Jenna. This was such a heartbreaking, eye-opening and well researched book and I'm glad you enjoyed it as much as I did. 🙂

  6. Adalyn

    Salt to the Sea was such a beautiful and heartbreaking book. I loved every bit of it. My favorite character was Emilia as well, and the ending just got me so choked up. Her story was just so horrible and heartbreaking, it's terrible to think she was only fifteen (sixteen?) at the time. Great review, and i'm glad to see you enjoyed this one as much as I did.

    • It's so hard to comprehend what some teenagers or even young children must've gone through during WWII. Well the adults as well. It's just devastating! Every time I read WWII fiction, it hits me again that even though they're fictional stories, they closely mimic what actually happened. Emilia is going to be one of my favourite fictional women for a while to come.

  7. aentee @ read at midnight

    Since you're the WWII guru of my heart, your stamp of approval on this book pleases me greatly. I may or may not be on Book Depository right now trying to order a hard cover copy. It sounds really emotional though, but lately I've been a mood to want to cry over fiction. Yup, I am a weirdo.
    For now, I'll settle with googling about the Wilhelm Gustloff XD

    • Yes! Read this please! Can't guarantee that it's your thing but the writing is beautiful and the story is magnificent. Definitely a cry worthy book if you're looking for one. Another cry worthy book that I read recently is The Memory Book (which I will review next week). It's like a book version of 1 Litre of Tears but less dramatic.

  8. I don't normally cry with books but this one made me bawl like a baby. I also did it via audiobook and omg it was the worst thing I could have listened to in public. At one point, I had to sit down and gather myself because I was tearing up.
    I'm so glad that you loved it, Jenna. I agree that the characters and their relationship were the best part of this book. And I loved that I learned something about history too. It inspired me to check out more information on the Wilhelm Gustloff.
    Beautiful review, Jenna!

    • Omg I cried for so long after I finished it! I was actually okay throughout most of the book and thought I'd make it through without crying but then I got to that one scene where Florian is trying to get Emilia to connect with Halinka and he says "She is Poland." I started BAWLING! I definitely did some research on the Wilhelm Gustloff afterwards as well! It's just mindblowing that this massive thing happened but yet no-one talks about it or knows about it.

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