Salt to the Sea is a story of refugees during World War II. It’s part of author Ruta Sepetys’ family history, and her research into real-life events is meticulous. And yet, this is a story of people, not just history. The history is the why and the how, but the people in the novel are its heart.

Sepetys tells the story from the alternating view points of Joana, Florian, Emilia, and Alfred. Each has a different experience of war, but ends up in the port city of Gotenhafen, along the Baltic Sea. The women, Joana and Emilia, are refugees trying to escape to safety. Alfred is a German Navy sailor. And Florian’s story is a bit more complex, although he’s also on the run.

All of the characters are young in years. But they’ve lived through many years of war and hardship, giving them gravitas and age. I’d like to say they’re all wiser. One, however, is the exact opposite, and a great foil for the other three.

My conclusions

This is a YA (young adult) book, but it is so strongly grounded in history—and tragedy—that it feels like an adult book. For me, what makes it YA is the writing style itself. Sepetys doesn’t create especially complex sentences. She’s a bit more straightforward, which, when combined with her strong characterizations, makes for quick reading. On the other hand, this is an emotional book. And the author never shies away from vivid descriptions and feelings.

I was immediately drawn into each character’s story. War is a time of secrets, and each character has a few. Sepetys uses history and truth to create believable back stories for the foursome. War is also a time of endurance. Without strength, you won’t endure. And sometimes even that isn’t enough.

Honestly, I was pretty heartbroken by this story. Moping at dinner after finishing the book, I had to explain to Mr. B. “I’m still getting over the tragedy,” I said. And we tried to talk about happier things.

I’d recommend this to historical fiction readers. You might also choose it for a reading challenge prompt about YA, particularly if you don’t typically read YA books.