Thursday, August 31, 2017

756 (2017 #54). Salt to the Sea

by Ruta Sepetys
read by Jorjeana Marie, Will Damron, Cassandra Morris, and Michael Crouch

Salt to the Sea is historical fiction based on some little-known real-life events and places - Operation Hannibal, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, and the fate of the original Amber Room.  The story takes place in January 1945, near the end of World War II, when the German navy launched Operation Hannibal to evacuate citizens and military wounded across the Baltic Sea ahead of the approaching Russian army.  The Wilhelm Gustloff was a former cruise ship used in this evacuation.  The Amber Room in the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia, was looted by the Nazis, hidden, and never found again (it was later reconstructed in the palace).  All play a part in the narrative.

The story is told by four first-person narrators:
- Joana, a Lithuanian woman around age 21 who has medical training,
- Emilia, a Polish 15-year-old,
- Florian, a 19-20-year-old Prussian trained in art restoration, and
- Alfred, a young German sailor.

Joana is traveling with a group of refugees that include a blind girl, a shoemaker, and a little orphan boy.  Emilia is originally traveling alone, but is saved from an attack by a Russian soldier by Florian.  The two of them meet up with Joana's group and eventually wind up in the port city of Gotenhafen (now known as Gdynia), where Alfred is helping to prepare the Gustloff for the evacuees.

I don't want to give the whole story away - part of the intrigue of the book is that few people know about Operation Hannibal or the Gustloff, despite the immense disaster.  The Amber Room is somewhat peripheral to the story - it provides the motivation for Florian's actions - but it is especially interesting given that amber is the national gem of Lithuania, where author Ruta Sepetys' father is from.

I think in this case, an audiobook with four voices, one for each of the story's narrators, was especially effective.  Voiceover artists Jorjeana Marie and Will Damron are very believable as Joana and Florian respectively.  At first I didn't like Cassandra Morris' little-girl voice for Emilia, but as you learn more about the character, it becomes fitting.  Michael Crouch sounds exactly the way I would expect an unquestioning, sociopathic Nazi character like Alfred to sound.

This book was much, MUCH better than Between Shades of Gray, Sepetys' debut novel.  I'm not surprised the audiobook won the 2017 Audie Award in the Young Adult category.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[The e-audiobook, and an e-book for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my local public library and my university library respectively.]

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