We Are Proud to Present this year’s Reads Committee Selection for the Fox Cities Community Read!
Ruta Sepetys (Rūta Šepetys) is an internationally acclaimed author of historical fiction published in over fifty countries and thirty-six languages. Sepetys is considered a “crossover” novelist as her books are read by both students and adults worldwide. Her novels, Between Shades of Gray and Out of the Easy are both New York Times bestsellers and international bestsellers. Her latest novel, Salt to the Sea, is a #1 New York Times bestseller and winner of the Carnegie Medal. Her books have won or been shortlisted for over forty book prizes, are included on over twenty state reading lists, and are currently in development for film and television.
Ruta is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee. Born in Michigan, she was raised in a family of artists, readers, and music lovers. Ruta attended college to study opera but instead graduated with a degree in International Finance. Prior to publishing her first novel, she spent twenty years in the music industry helping artists and songwriters distill story through song.
Sepetys is the first American crossover novelist to address both European Parliament and Library of Congress. She was awarded The Rockefeller Foundation’s prestigious Bellagio Resident Fellowship for Salt to the Sea.
Ruta was recently bestowed the Cross of the Knight of the Order by the President of Lithuania for her contributions to education and memory preservation. She is intensely proud to be Lithuanian, even if that means she has a name no one can pronounce.
Ruta lives in a treehouse in the hills of Tennessee.
Salt to the Sea
In 1945, World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, almost all of them with something to hide. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer toward safety. Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.
A tribute to the people of Lithuania, Poland, and East Prussia, Ruta Sepetys unearths a shockingly little-known casualty of a gruesome war, and proves that humanity can prevail, even in the darkest of hours.
1. For what reasons do you think Florian begins to feel connected to Joana? How would you characterize their relationship, and how does it change over the course of the novel?
2. Salt to the Sea is told in multiple first-person narratives; how would the story be different if only a single character were telling it? Do you think changing the point of view would improve the story? Why or why not?
3. As they travel toward the shore in hopes of a spot aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, Florian tells Joana that Emilia is without identity papers, and Joana thinks to herself, “Emilia had no papers. No papers, no future.” Why does her lack of documentation subject her to a likely death sentence?
4. Throughout Salt to the Sea, many characters exhibit acts of bravery. Consider the individual actions of these characters. Who do you believe to be the most courageous, and why?
5. Emilia and Joana are both Polish. Of the two, Joana is welcome in Germany and considered “Germanizable.” While discussing the inequality of Hilter’s position on Poles, Eva says ‘Life’s not fair. You’re lucky. Do you think you have time to be moral?” Consider Eva’s statement. Do you agree? In a moral crisis, in what ways do the actions and reactions of an individual define them?
6. World War II was the first war in which civilians were as affected as soldiers. Considering what you learned from Salt to the Sea, what were some of the ways in which civilians were most greatly affected?
7. Considering each of the main characters’ perspectives, in what ways is Salt to the Sea a story about things that have been lost? What does each character find along the way?
8. Before and During World War II, the Nazis looted and plundered art from across Europe. Consider the systematic theft, deliberate destruction and miraculous survival of Europe’s art treasures. Why does art such as the Amber Room have such power over individuals? What does it say about mankind that we make tremendous effort to preserve and protect it? How does Florian view his theft of the swan to be his revenge against Hitler?
9. What would you identify or describe as being part of “survival mode”—what kinds of struggles bring out in people the ability to endure extreme hardships (like World War II or the Holocaust), and to overcome them?
10. Explain the significance of the title, Salt to the Sea. Given the magnitude of the tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff, does it accurately describe the events and relationships portrayed in the novel?
Discussion Questions created by Dr. Rose Brock, an assistant professor in the Library Science Department in the College of Education at Sam Houston State University. Dr. Brock holds a Ph.D. in Library Science, specializing in children’s and young adult literature.