If I may be honest, I was initially frustrated by this pairing. I hadn’t yet read either Salt to the Sea or Something in Between, but I had preconceived notions about both books.
Ruta Sepetys writes dark, emotional historical fiction. The cover art for Salt to the Sea has a gloomy color palette of blues and dark grays. The titular sea is teeming with empty life rafts, while foreboding clouds fill the horizon. The book has received rave reviews and made appearances on a number of year-end lists of “Best YA/Teen Books of 2016.” I was maybe already thinking that this was the obvious winner before reading either book.
On the other hand, Melissa de la Cruz is such a beloved author of books for young adults. Something in Between is flowers and color and a big, bright “Seventeen Fiction” sticker. And yet, the subject matter of immigration and belonging and expectation is in itself fairly heavy and timely to the state of affairs in 2017. I hadn’t heard as much “buzz,” so to speak, about this book, but I was excited for the chance to read it.
So now my conundrum is this idea of weighing historical heaviness versus contemporary cultural reality and figuring out how to decide which is “better.”
Salt to the Sea is the story of an often-overlooked event of World War II: the sinking of the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff. Ruta Sepetys crafts an incredibly successful emotional journey by placing the reader in the mind-frame of four teenagers who’s lives ultimately intertwine in the lead-up (and follow-though) to this devastating event. Each character’s story is brief and captivating, as perspectives are kept to one to four page sections that beg for continuation. I personally found this to be an incredibly effective way to keep the pace of the book swift and engaging. We meet Joana, a Lithuanian nurse who is fleeing from East Prussia; Florian, a Prussian forager who is travelling with an important item stolen from the Nazi Amber Room; Emilia, a young, pregnant Polish girl who gives birth near the middle of the story; and Alfred, a Hitler worshiper stationed on the Gustloff. It is not a spoiler moment to state that some of these characters will die. I will not share which ones, but in a story about the single largest maritime disaster in history, that seems to be a given. In the concluding author’s note, Sepetys states her intention to give voice to these “hidden histor[ies], countless stories preserved only by those who experienced them.” And if the marker of a quality book is accomplishing a goal set out by its author, I think Sepetys did just that. I thought about the Gustloff. I researched the Gustloff. I thought about my education and my job and how the internet will shape what becomes of history. I finished this book and thought about the power of books. I think that, in and of itself, is a ringing endorsement.
In Something in Between, we meet Jasmine de los Santos, the top-of-her-class captain of a nationally ranked cheerleading squad, and an active volunteer. She, her parents, and her two younger brothers legally immigrated to the United States from the Philippines when she was nine – or so she thought. Upon receiving a National Scholarship Award that would grant her full-tuition to the college of her choice, Jasmine learns that her family never acquired the proper visas they needed to keep them in the country legally, and now they face deportation. Though touted as a story of romance reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet (Jasmine’s boyfriend Royce is the son of a congressman embroiled in this very timely topic of immigration), the personal nature of the immigration storyline is the true success. I wasn’t sold on the convenience of the whole romantic angle of the book, but it was a nice way to put a light-hearted face on a serious topic. And again, without “spoiling” anything, the ending is a little predictable, but it’s refreshing to have a book end on such a nice note. So now I consider, is this the important part? As a librarian, I’ve found Something in Between to be a bit of an easier sell than Salt to the Sea. It physically looks happier. The story sounds happier. Kids are often more stressed than we give them credit for, so do they want to read a “gloom and doom” about terrible things that really happened? They may not, but let’s remember that I am choosing for myself here.
I read Something in Between before Salt to the Sea, because it just looked like an easier experience, and yet, I really thought about Salt to the Sea. It pulled me into its world in an intense way. But that being said, I honestly almost changed my choice while writing this. Maybe I got a bit too heady about subject matter and moved away from the idea of quality and attempted to change my own mind, but at the end of the day, I have to go with my gut and pick Salt to the Sea.
WINNER: SALT TO THE SEA BY RUTA SEPETYS