Salt To The Sea by Ruta Sepetys | Book Review

Here at Good Books & Good Wine, we are huge fans of Ruta Sepetys. When a book of hers drops, you can expect to see several reviews of that book here on this site. Upon receiving Salt To The Sea in the mail – which was one of my most anticipated reads of 2016, I put it on my stack to read immediately, and thankfully had an opportunity to do just that after finishing up my prior read. I feel like I am writing to the future with this post – because I am typing it in November 2015 but it goes live in January 2016 (hello new year! hope you are amazing!). As expected, Sepetys’s third novel, Salt To The Sea is a triumph and I feel like I have been bestowed a great honor in being able to read it early.

Salt To The Sea by Ruta Sepetys is about four teenagers at the close of World War II who are connected by a ship called the Wihelm Gustloff. This is a ship that will take refugees across the Baltic sea to safer parts of Germany. Unfortunately, not to be all spoiler alert, but how can spoil things that actually happened in history, the ship is torpedoed by the Russians and sinks. This book, though, details the secrets these four teenagers have and how they get to the ship and the journey from there. Sepetys’s book is richly detailed, imbued with a sense of time and place, yet very real and relatable today – especially given the Syrian refugee crisis. What you’ll find when you read Salt To The Sea by Ruta Sepetys is a fast moving, harrowing narrative.

I thought I would break down my review by point of view character. As I mentioned about the story Salt To The Sea is about four teenagers. Specifically – it is about Joana, Emilia, Florian, and Alfred. The book is written in chapters that are first person alternating points of view. So, anyways, I thought I would open up with Joana because she seemed one of the strongest characters to me and I liked her the best. Joana is a pretty Lithuanian girl who has been granted repatriation into Germany. She is a nurse and very good at what she does. She is evacuating from East Germany because the Russians are closing in.

Joana is kind and traveling with a group of people – a man known as the ‘shoe poet’, the wandering boy, Ingrid who happens to be blind, and a larger woman named Eva. The group travels through what was once Prussia in hopes of staying the night safe with a Junker family. Anyways, they make their way toward port hoping to find a ship. Joana, the nurse girl, is carrying a secret, like the four other teens. I won’t say what it is because it is best that you unravel that on your own. What I will say is that I felt she was incredibly well written and I loved reading her segments.

Joining Joana’s group is a Polish girl named Emilia, but first, Emilia is attacked by a Russian, kind of, however, she’s saved by this boy whom she views as one of the knights of old. Lucky for Emilia, she looks Aryan, so she’s able to traverse her way to safety without raising too much suspicion. So, okay, Emilia is a young girl, about fifteen or so. She is carrying her own secret and when you find out, I swear your heart will crack into a million pieces.

What you’ll discover is that this girl has seen more pain than most. She has seen more tragedy. Yet, she retains this child-like innocence which comes into play during her narrative quite a bit. I liked how different she was from Joana, it kept the prose from feeling stale or the voice from feeling too similar in tone. Emilia is the sort of character who you’ll find yourself really empathizing over.

Florian is another character in Salt To The Sea by Ruta Sepetys that I quite loved. At first you think, wow, he’s selfish and kind of a douche, but then you find yourself rooting for him and totally shipping him with Joana. Florian is Prussian. He was an art restoration apprentice to some Nazis at a museum. He believes he is doing good work and that he is really helping to preserve art. He believes the man he is apprenticing under is someone who listens to him and finds him brilliant. This is not the case and so, there’s great disappointment.

Florian finds himself escaping using his wits and a certain insurance policy. When he saves Emilia, she kind of becomes attached to him. He doesn’t want this, but because he is good at heart, he finds himself protecting her, while joining up with Joana and getting to know that group better. Ugh, you guys I rooted for Florian and I won’t tell you more. All you need to take away from this is that I love this book and I love these characters.

The final point of view character is Alfred. Guys, Alfred is the actual worst. He is a member of the Nazi party. He is a sailor aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff and often composes these letters in his head to this girl, Hannelore. He is one of those people who subscribes wholeheartedly to Nazi Party ideology to the point of making a song out of the different types of undesirables. Alfred is the kind of character where something feels off. I will say I did not love his parts, but they serve as contrast to the other three and add in a whole new, chilling perspective. This is the character that I think proves Sepetys has these amazing writing chops.

If you’ve read Between Shades of Gray or Out Of The Easy, you know that Sepetys really excels in bringing history to life and making it feel relevant to today (it is INDEED relevant). She brings parts of history that maybe we didn’t already know all about to light. The same can be said for Salt To The Sea. I never knew about the Wilhelm Gustloff or how harrowing it was for refugees during World War II. I think that this is the sort of book that can help teenagers empathize with what other people their age are going through now with the Syrian refugee crisis. This is a great book to pair with current events and one that I think deserves a place in your library along with the other two written by Sepetys so far. Indeed, this book is a must read.

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April is in her 30s and created Good Books And Good Wine. She works for a non-profit. April always has a book on hand. In her free time she can be found binge watching The Office with her husband and toddler, spending way too much time on Pinterest or exploring her neighborhood.

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About April (Books&Wine)

April is in her 30s and created Good Books And Good Wine. She works for a non-profit. April always has a book on hand. In her free time she can be found binge watching The Office with her husband and toddler, spending way too much time on Pinterest or exploring her neighborhood.


  1. Great review, April! I’ve read Ruta’s other two books, Out of the Easy and Between Shades of Gray and really enjoyed them! Of course, Between Shades of Gray is the one that is most similar to Salt to the Sea, so I have been intrigued about SttS since I first saw it on GoodReads. I love how Ruta tells the stories of people who were/are largely ignored during WWII. We have all heard and read about the many who lived and suffered and died in the prison camps, but we know very little about the Wilhelm Gustloff, for example. Their stories are just as important and must be told!

    I’m happy to hear that you enjoyed this book so much, and that you urged your fellow readers to consider this book in light of the Syrian refugee crisis. We could all stand to be more understanding and sympathetic of these awful happenings going on in our world today.

    I will be honored to have Salt to the Sea on my bookshelf. Can’t wait to give it a read!

  2. I’m so ready to read this book! From the moment I saw the cover and read the synopsis, I knew that it would be special. Lovely review!
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  3. Oh boy, I’m super excited to read SALT TO THE SEA now! It sounds really incredible, and I’m looking forward to meeting the characters (well, three of them at least) when I get to finally read this one. I did enjoy OUT OF THE EASY, and how Sepetys depicted that time in history; I’m hoping I love this one just as much!
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  4. I have this at home and got an ARC signed for one of my students when I was at ALAN in November. I haven’t read it yet, but I know my student is loving it. I’m really glad you added that info about the connection to the Syrian crisis; it’s prompted me to read this one even sooner than I originally planned. Thanks 🙂

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