Salt to the Sea

Salt to the Sea Study Guide

Salt to the Sea is a young-adult historical fiction novel published on February 2, 2016. It is Ruta Sepetys’s third novel. Like Sepetys’s other three novels, Salt to the Sea explores the lost and forgotten stories of history. In particular, it focuses on the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff during Operational Hannibal, which took place during WWII and was the largest sea evacuation in modern history. During Operation Hannibal, over two million Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, ethnic Germans, and residents of the East Prussian and Polish corridors were evacuated. The majority of the Gustloff’s passengers were civilians, with an estimated five thousand being children.

While there are many important stories of World War II, Sepetys chose to focus on the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff, because even though it is the deadliest disaster in maritime history, most people have never heard of it. Often, stories of war focus on great battles or famous historical figures. Yet Salt to the Sea brings to life the stories of the war's refugees, especially those who are not usually the focus of narratives about World War II. In this way, the novel questions which elements of history are preserved and which are forgotten. She insists that it is important for us to preserve the memory of those who perished and to give a voice to the survivors of historical tragedies.

Sepetys also intended for the novel to be a vehicle for readers from nations divided by history to unite in study and remembrance. This is why she chose to tell the story through the eyes of four youth from different nations who are forced to leave their homes and everything they loved behind. Salt to the Sea is significant because it foregrounds the perspectives of young people so as to tell the story of World War II’s refugees and the tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff.

Salt to the Sea received widespread critical acclaim and has won dozens of regional, national, and international awards. The novel was a #1 New York Times Bestseller, and Sepetys was awarded the 2017 Carnegie Medal, the United Kingdom’s most prestigious children's book award, for the novel. The book was also honored as a finalist of the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award in 2017. In 2017 Universal Pictures revealed that it was adapting Salt to the Sea into a movie, and the Listening Library has released it as an audiobook.