The class book review: Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys

Title: Salt to the Sea
Author: Ruth Sepetys
Publisher: Puffin

Teacher review

This is a meticulously researched, and often deeply moving, historical novel. The story takes place in the final throes of the Second World War, and chronicles the journey of a ragtag band of refugees fleeing the advancing Russian army through Prussia. Our four protagonists hope for salvation aboard the Wilhelm Gosloff, a German transport ship stationed on the Baltic. The real ship was sunk in January 1945 by a Russian torpedo, in what remains the worst single naval disaster in history: over 9,000 were killed, the vast majority of them civilian migrants. Some 5,000 of them were children.

A novel that dramatises the sinking of a ship, perilously overpopulated, intended to spirit people away from the horror of brutal military conflict, clearly has chilling contemporary resonance. This book pulls no punches in the telling, and dramatises its action in a narrative structure which some teenage readers will find challenging: it sits between young-adult and adult historical fiction. Many of our young readers, volunteers from an able Year 8 class, loved it, as did I.

This is an epistolary novel, structured as a series of brief first-person accounts, some letters, some diary entries. This form places particular demands on the reader – something several of our reviewers noted – and requires real focus for the first 50 pages or so as you get to grips with each character and their story. For this kind of multi-strand plot to work, each story needs tremendous narrative momentum. I had productive conversations with the able, thoughtful readers in my class about the way this author achieved that.

Curriculum links

The novel would offer tremendous fodder for any history teacher wishing to unpick the subjective nature of historical perspective. The book’s intimate first-person narratives offer a series of contrasting perspectives – Polish, Lithuanian and German – of a moment of terrible crisis. In bringing to life and balancing the voices of sworn enemies, the book offers a powerful sense of our shared humanity, and a wonderful starting point for classroom discussion of a host of contemporary global crises.

Toby Garfath is an English teacher and literacy coordinator at the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School.

Pupil reviews

“I would recommend the book to committed readers, as I think that some people would stop reading it early on because they are confused by the different characters. My favourite part of the book is when the Russian ships sink the Wilhelm Gustloff, as it is very exciting and tense. It is worth reading this book to the end.”

“I really enjoyed this book. I liked the format of short chapters with alternating protagonists, and I liked that each character had a secret to reveal. But most of all I enjoyed learning about an event of historical significance.”

“It can be hard to get to grips with, but as the book progresses it seems like a beautifully conceived plan. All of the characters have their own little adventures and along with that they have their own little sins. The author creates enough red herrings that you are constantly intrigued. This is the magic of the book: whenever one question is answered you are inundated with others which perplex you. Moments are heart-wrenching. Things like this make you reflect and be grateful, but at the same time create a strong emotional bond between you and the book,”

“The story, for me, was more about the development of characters than the storyline. Every chapter ends with a new detail about the character’s past, so by the end we understand their back stories and how they affect their behaviour.”

“At first I found it difficult to follow all the characters and how they were connected. However, I love the way the book strings together the characters and manages to connect them, using the tragedies that separate them but also the victories which bring them together. I enjoyed the way it told of the different experiences of the war from all the different nationalities affected, even to those who had a relaxing time during the war. The book is fantastic and unique.”

All pupils are in Year 8 at Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School.

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