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Salt to the Sea

salt-to-the-sea-coverSalt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys
Philomel, February 2016
Reviewed from ARC

When we compiled our list of 25 contenders, we skipped Salt to the Sea. But not because we hadn’t read it: I read it back in late 2016, and even gave it four stars on Goodreads.

However, the longer I get from reading this one, the more I tend to feel an eye roll coming on when I consider its merits. This is maybe just me, though, because this was one of two titles mentioned repeatedly in the comments on the list, it’s a bestseller, and it received three starred reviews.

So that sigh I made when you all wrote it in with such enthusiasm is terribly harsh, and a little bit unfair. This is not a bad book, not by a long shot. But here’s what doesn’t work: the baddie, Alfred, the German soldier who is like a caricature of some pop psychology Hitler theories: a guy who can’t get what he wants so he grabs onto power and uses it. He’s creepy and his internal monologue reveals his nasty side in ways that make no sense for an internal monologue. He’s obvious, seemingly designed to make it clear that even though this is a text with sympathy for the German lives lost in the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the Nazis are still the bad guys. In case, you know, the misfortunes of the rest of the (happily more nuanced) characters or oh, history, wasn’t enough to make that clear.

Also, it’s a very readable text — short, often staccato sentences, brief chapters, precise exposition woven in, not seamlessly but rapidly and efficiently. From an RA perspective, or even a review perspective, these aren’t issues and might even be laudable, but when lined up against other selections from the year, the writing feels downright utilitarian. Add to that the very neat ending and this just pales next to the rich best of the year.

So what’s right about Salt to the Sea? Well, in all honesty, I rather expect everyone else will have more to say about the merits. But: It’s an awesome history lesson. It has genuine feels: as much as that letter at the end (the tidy bow on the proverbial package) bothered me (it’s too neat and also unnecessary; I much preferred Emilia’s dying dream to a random stranger getting the last word, especially as the last word feels so authorial), the image of her laid to rest under the roses was emotional, as was the loss of the Shoe Poet. The privations of the war and the hope of making it through were brought vividly to life through Joana and Florian and Emilia and the people they encounter. This is a good book, a super readable piece of historical fiction (with extensive back matter, yay!) — but it’s just not great.

Am I being wildly unfair? (I did like it a lot right after finishing, after all). Care to argue the other side? Have at it!

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About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Huh, how you feel about the letter at the end of Salt to the Sea is very much how I feel about the authorial coda at the end of The Passion of Dolssa. But I suppose that’s a discussion for another day/another post…

    It’s been quite a while since I’ve read this one and I admit that my clearest recollection is of the feel and the emotional engagement; I think it’s masterful in how it draws the reader in and absorbs them even as you can see the tragedy coming and might want to distance yourself. I do remember being frustrated with the one-dimensionality of Alfred, and that’s why I, too, only gave it four stars instead of five. But the choppy writing struck me as distinguished for this story: it felt like what the narrative needed to be told effectively. It added to the painful, immediate nature of the reading experience. It’s the sort of book that relies on coincidence and near-misses, and coincidences that would’ve had me rolling my eyes in a more traditionally-told narrative instead built the sense of inevitability in the multi-thread narrative. I also remember it being distinguished in its differentiation of its narrative voices.

    (I only have two personal five-star books so far: The Lie Tree and The Raven King)

    • I agree with you, Mimi. I really enjoyed this book, and I particularly enjoyed the narrative structure. I do agree with Karyn, though, that Alfred’s voice was a little too much – caricature, if you will. His chapters were the least interesting to me.

      Still, the majority of the writing was gut-wrenchingly effective. The death of the blind girl, the impending doom of the ship… all beautifully rendered.

      And my students love it, too, which is always a bonus… even though I know it has no bearing on any committee’s decision. :)

  2. Kristin C says:

    I totally agree about this book. The ending was too convenient, and the lean toward magic realism felt ridiculous and forced. I also have an eye roll reaction to it. And yes, Alfred was a caricature. He could have been interesting, but he was mostly just a nasty little dummy. I actually hated that shoe poet, in spite of his sad end. He kept delivering stupid fortune cookies every time he spoke, and that was perhaps one of the weakest aspects of the book. I felt there could have been more to Emilia, but too much of the story seemed to focus on the generic love story between Joana and Florian. I gave it four goodreads stars too, but I don’t think it’s a meritorious work either.

  3. Anne Bennett says:

    I want books which not only draw me into the book but also draw me into the setting and this book didn’t do it for me. I liked the history lesson but I could not picture any part of any of the settings with the possible exception of the barn near the beginning, and since the barn wasn’t important it is a silly thing to even mention. The short choppy chapters with character shifts were confusing ex especially in the beginning. I think teenagers would find them off-putting. Why can’t authors write their prose in 3rd person omniscient?

    • “Why can’t authors write their prose in 3rd person omniscient?”

      Because that would get real boring real fast?

      Besides which, third person omniscient doesn’t automatically avoid the shifting you found confusing–Game of Thrones is the type case for 3rd person omni with tons of shifts between location and characters, but it’s certainly not alone in that.

      I don’t think the barn is a silly thing to mention–it may not be important to the setting on a global, geographic level, but it is important to the setting on a micro level–it’s emblamatic of the world the characters are experiencing. I found the setting altogether more convincing than you did–the weather, the bleakness, the sea, the abandonment, the stubbornness of Prussia-not-Germany-not-Poland-not-Russia (my grandfather was always insistent that we were Prussian Jews, not Polish. Which, yes, is both biased and snobbish. Family, nu?) though I don’t know how I’d react if I was coming at the book from a less-knowledgeable point of view. (Which, by the way, I think is less a matter of being an adult and more a matter of (home) education–my first big WWII reading binge was in fourth grade. This would’ve fit right in.)

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      I don’t mind shifting first person, although the voices — largely because of the clipped, short sentences and brief paragraphs used by all of them, at least some of the time — did sometimes blur together. That said, they do have distinct backstories and concerns.

  4. Cherylynn says:

    My concern was with authorial choices. Why do some characters get to tell their stories and not others? I did not understand why we did not get to hear the point of view of the shoe poet or the little boy. We got to hear the point of view of all of the others in the group we followed around.

  5. I love multiple voice novels when they’re done well, but this was an absolute fail for me. The only voice that was easy to identify without looking at the name at the top of the page/chapter was Alfred, and I agree with what everyone else here has said about him. The others did not sound different in language, in tone, in thought, in authorial approach.

    It also failed for me on an emotional level. I cry pretty easily over sad stories, or characters who grab me by the heart and don’t let go, and with this devastating premise and each character’s heartbreaking storyline, I expected to be bawling. But the writing was so bland and stilted, and the characterization so thin, that I could not get caught up in the story emotionally. Code Name Verity it ain’t.

    The only level on which the book worked for me was as an introduction to a historical event that I knew little about. I did appreciate that–but I’d have taken a good PBS doc about the topic over this book any day.

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