Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys (2016)
Between Shades of Gray, and then I loved her second book, Out of the Easy. Now I love her third book, Salt to the Sea. Four narrators tell us the story of the worst maritime disaster in history. That's right: worse than the Titanic, worse than the Lusitania. Almost 10,000 people died when the Willhelm Gustloff was torpedoed by the Russians, and you've probably never heard of it. I certainly hadn't.
Joana is a Lithuanian nurse, Emilia a Polish girl with a secret, Florian a Prussian art restorer, and Alfred a self-important Nazi. In alternating chapters they tell the story leading up to the disaster. Florian saves Emilia from a Russian soldier and together they join up with Joana's group of refugees, and they all travel to the port of Gotenhafen to escape East Prussia before the Russians attack.
Short chapters mean an almost constant change of perspective. It was confusing at first and took me a bit to get a handle on the characters, but then I was propelled through the story. Getting only a little bit at a time from each character meant I kept going and going so I could find out more. There was so much to learn about these people and their stories!
I don't want to say too much about what happens to them along the way, or even reveal much about the characters, because this is all part of the story. None of these people know who to trust and they keep their stories and their problems very close as long as possible. But they do need each other's help, and (aside from Alfred) were decent people just trying to get through a really, really rough time. In addition to the narrating refugees were a young boy known as "the wanderer," an older man who took responsibility for him and was known as "the shoe poet" because he could tell so much about people by their feet, a tall woman named Eva who was never afraid to say what she was thinking, but always apologized for it, and a blind but very perceptive young woman named Ingrid. Alfred was a strange, unsettling character and his chapters were primarily letters he composed in his head to a girl back home named Hannalore.
It's World War II so things are pretty awful, and despite writing for a teen audience Sepetys doesn't shy away from the harsh reality of the time. I wasn't surprised, because I read Between Shades of Gray, but some of the scenes were still pretty upsetting. The desperation of those who weren't able to get on one of the ships to escape was heart-wrenching and made for some scenes I won't soon forget. All through the novel, Joana, Florian, and Emilia feared for their lives, all for different reasons. I felt very anxious for them! Luckily it was a very quick read so I didn't need to wait long to reach the satisfying conclusion.
If you like good historical fiction, even if you don't usually read books for teens, I highly recommend picking up this one.