Book Review: Salt to the Sea

After I turned the last page, I was so upset there wasn’t any more that I made my husband hold me for a solid half-hour.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

After reading Fountains of Silence, I had to read another by Ruta Sepetys. This one did not disappoint. After I turned the last page, I was so upset that I made my husband hold me for a solid half-hour. Though I have a stack of books waiting to be read, I wanted more of this one.

Back Cover Description

“Winter 1945. Four refugees. Four secrets.

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

As thousands desperately 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.

But not all promises can be kept.”

Characters

A lot of characters act in the pages of this book, but with creativity and skill, Sepetys brings them all to life. Each minor character has a quirk that allows the reader to keep track, and each of the perspective character’s voices is distinct enough that the narrator is clear even if you don’t read the chapter headings.

The main characters are all moving toward the same goal—the Wilhelm Gustloff—but each of them flees a different past. They carry their guilt, fear, in grief in different ways, and their backstories come to light throughout the book. Much like The Things They Carried, you can tell a lot about each character based upon what they took with them, and what they risked to keep it. Eva, for example, risks her place upon the boat by waiting for her mother’s silver.

I liked the author’s inclusion of the delusional German sailor. Constantly teased and never taken seriously, he wasn’t a “villain” per se, but his sick mind served as a reminder that evil is a machine with gears both large and small.

Plot

The innocent refugees are trapped between two evils—the invading Russians behind them, and the Nazis in front of them. They each take their chances with Germany. The tension is high throughout the story; I couldn’t help rooting for each of them as they ran from the horrors of their pasts straight into the jaws of the future.

The story depicts a tragedy that was six times deadlier than the Titanic, yet remains obscure. I love reading about WWII because there are so many aspects of the global conflict. Not only did this story move me emotionally, it educated me. I had never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff, but now, as I often do after reading, I wonder why there isn’t a blockbuster movie about it.

Writing Style

Sepetys uses multiple perspectives for this tale—the right call for a story like this. Because of the shifting perspectives, the chapters are short. In theory, that should make the book easy to put down. I knew I was in trouble about two-thirds in. I spared a token glance at the clock, but I knew I would stay up to finish it. No regrets. Sepetys writing is beautiful and powerful.

Other

I love the cover with the shoes. The “shoe poet” is one of my favorite characters, and the different shoes on the cover highlight the different backgrounds of each character.

Conclusion

You really should have stopped reading a while ago and bought the book, but if you’re not convinced yet, let me add that this book joins only four others with the rank of Binge Read. An incredible read from an incredible author.


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Book Review: The Fountains of Silence

When your criticism of a book is wanting more, you know it’s a good one. If you’re looking for a story to make your heart pound with apprehension and burst with love at the same time, look no further.

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The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys

“Madrid, 1957. Under the fascist dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, Spain is hiding a dark secret. Meanwhile, tourists and foreign businessmen flood into the country under the welcoming guise of sunshine and wine. Among them is eighteen-year-old Daniel Matheson, the son of a Texas oil tycoon, who arrives in Madrid with his parents hoping to connect with the country of his mother’s birth through the lens of his camera. Photography–and fate–introduce him to Ana, whose family’s interweaving obstacles reveal the lingering grasp of the Spanish Civil War–as well as chilling definitions of fortune and fear. Daniel’s photographs leave him with uncomfortable questions amidst shadows of danger. He is backed into a corner of decisions to protect those he loves. Lives and hearts collide, revealing an incredibly dark side to the sunny Spanish city.” – Amazon Description

Me: Nooooooooo!

My Husband: Are you okay?

Me: I finished the book.

I am not a binger. My husband can watch an entire season of a TV show in one day. I’m lucky to get through half an episode. I say this so when I tell you I binge-read this book, you understand the implications.

Two subjects, whether fiction or non-fiction, never fail to cause an abrupt end to my to-do list: World War II, and La Guerra Civil de España (the Spanish Civil War and subsequent years under El Generalísimo Franco). A summer in Madrid was enough to capture my heart, but not enough to satisfy my curiosity. Alas, student loans kept further study abroad experiences beyond my reach, so I learn vicariously through books.

Many readers know of the Spanish Civil War thanks to Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, but life under the dictatorship is often overlooked. This book fits into the gap, telling the stories of young people who inherited the consequences of the previous generation’s war. Their struggles are no less impactful for taking place in “peace time.”

The setting made this book a guaranteed win for me, but the writing itself gave it the addictive quality of heroin. Originally, I was bummed this book wasn’t written in Spanish. Now I’m glad I read the original English. Sepetys’s prose is a work of art, beautifully constructed. Her entrancing narrative voice presides over the storyline, yet each character’s perspective is unique. For example, she uses the phrase “hair as black as crude oil” when writing in the perspective of the young Texan.

I felt part two wrapped things up rather quickly, but I was okay with that because after part one I was dying for a happy ending. If I had to list a criticism, it would be that the dialogue of the younger characters, Rafa and Buttons, was so similar it made it hard to separate them as distinct characters. Both speak with the boundless enthusiasm of energetic youths, but when the story switches to Rafa’s perspective, we meet a thoughtful young man braving to transcend his troubled history. Other characters note the dichotomy between his past and his carefree personality, but they could have been better blended. I would have also liked to see more of Daniel’s mother’s reaction to conditions in her home country.

When your criticism of a book is wanting more, you know it’s a good one. If you’re looking for a story to make your heart pound with apprehension and burst with love at the same time, look no further. I highly recommend The Fountains of Silence, and I can’t wait to read more from this author.

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The Fountains of Silence

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