Few people have heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German military ocean liner carrying civilians and refugees that was sunk by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea in January 1945. The tragedy, the biggest maritime disaster in history, claimed over 9,000 lives. Inspired by this atrocious tragedy, bestselling author Ruta Sepetys takes the reader back in time to World War II in her book “Salt to the Sea.”
Set in East Prussia in the winter of 1945, “Salt to the Sea” tells the story of four young refugees whose seemingly diverse paths converge amidst the chaos of World War II. They all board the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that reassured its passengers refuge. But not all promises can be kept. The four unrelated and unalike characters suddenly find one thing in common: they all must fight for their lives.
This book’s captivating introduction had me hooked immediately. Emilia, a 15-year-old Polish girl, encounters a near-death situation in the first chapter, which made me realize that the characters’ journey to safety was not going to be a picnic.
Joana, an ambitious Lithuanian nurse in her early 20s, is the rational one of the group, often leading the group to safety. However her actions are led by guilt and regret from her past. Florian, is a brave Prussian boy whose past mistakes have taken a toll on his personality. Florian distances himself from the others, not wanting to make the same mistake of trusting the wrong people.
When Emalia is first introduced, she is alone, hiding from a Russian soldier. Florian saves her from those soldiers and she sees him as her knight in shining armor. She is on a journey to find her father, who sent her away to East Prussia to keep her safe. The last character to be introduced is Alfred, a young German sailor with big dreams and psychopathic thoughts. Sepetys tells Alfred’s story through his correspondence with a girl named Hannelore, who’s connection to Alfred is revealed later in the book.
This book remained realistic (except for Florian’s background) and I loved that about it. The book’s realism served to sentimentalize rather than sanitize the tragedy on which the story is based. The ending-- when Emilia is reunited with her family and finally feels safe and free-- was extremely well written and evoked emotion in the readers. The story and the characters’ secrets slowly unfold throughout the book, tuning readers in and keeping them on edge until the end. All of the characters have a purpose that keep them going as the war and book progresses. By the end of the book, the characters are entirely new people, free from their burdensome pasts.
My favorite character is Emilia, who has shown the most character development. When she was first introduced, she was meek and alone. However, as the book progresses, she shows more courage and initiation. Emilia is a young and innocent character, who is burdened with too much, at too young an age. Her selfless actions end up saving a life. Bravery, determination and trust play important parts in this novel, and make Emilia the real role model.
Sepetys reveals each character’s background selectively and slowly throughout the book, holding the audience’s interest from beginning to end. It is almost as if, throughout the book, she is giving the readers puzzle pieces to complete the whole picture. Joana’s actions are led by guilt, as she believes that she should not have been the one who lived. Sepetys gives us subtle details and hints, as the characters play back the parts of memories that have affected them most, and leave the reader to guess the rest until it is revealed later.
For good reason, “Salt to the Sea” has won many awards, including the Carnegie Medal in 2017. It is a must-read novel recommended to every historical fiction lover.