“Guilt is a hunter.
My conscience mocked me, picking fights like a petulant child.
It’s all your fault, the voice whispered.”
So begins Salt to the Sea in the voice of Joana, yet another gripping historical fiction novel by Rita Sepetys that draws on her own family’s history. As she did in Between Shades of Gray, Rita draws on her Lithuanian family history to revisit the real happening of the worst maritime disaster in history. Nine thousand passengers, most of them refugees, drowned when the German ocean liner Wilhelm Gustloff sank in 1945. Her father’s cousin missed the disaster only because she was unable to board on that fateful day. That cousin suggested that Rita write the book. Others told her it was forgotten history and not worth bothering.
I’m glad Rita ignored the negative voices. Three main characters, Joana, Emelia, and Florien tell their stories of trying to make the ship that will take them to safety ahead of the Soviet advance with a fourth Nazi naval soldier named Alfred telling his own unreliable story as he tries to obtain status with the German regime. The story switches among each of their voices. In the first chapter of each, they find a different hunter. For Florein, fate is the hunter, for Emilie, it is shame, and for Alfred, if is fear. Backstories and secrets; setting; and well-drawn secondary characters, including a shoemaker who can deduce people’s story by their shoes, add to the tension even before the ship goes down. Tough decisions that weigh personal safety against the needs of the group proliferate, with the reader drawn into a desire to help make the choices.
I’m not alone in my praise for this book since it also won the 2017 CILIP Carnegie Medal, given in honor of Andrew Carnegie, for an outstanding children’s book; the 2017 Mid-South Division Crystal Kite Award and the 2017 Golden Kite Award for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the last two being the only awards judged by peers in the field.
I’m left with one puzzle, how soon can I expect another Rita Sepetys book?