Salt to the Sea is told from the point-of-view of four different teenagers, each with a secret. There is Florian, a disillusioned Prussian art restorer; Joana, a clever and determined Lithuanian nurse; Emilia, a young Polish girl struggling for hope in a world that continues to betray her; and Alfred, a young Nazi sailor desperately seeking recognition.
I am going to pause here, because you may be nervous about the same thing I was during Alfred’s first chapter — namely, is this book going to attempt to make me sympathize with a Nazi? The short answer is no. I’m not going to say Alfred’s chapters are easy to read — on the contrary; Alfred is an infuriating character, what you would get if you took Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice, aged him down a bit, and handed him a copy of Mein Kampf. And while Salt to the Sea never tries to make the reader sympathize with Alfred or make excuses for him, some readers may not be able to stomach reading his toxic and hateful inner monologue. Only you can decide whether you can handle reading from the POV of a Nazi (and a sniveling, lazy Nazi at that), and I won’t try to change your mind if you don’t think this is something you can do. All I will say is that Alfred’s chapters do contribute to the narrative as a whole, and neither the stakes nor the tension would be the same without his perspective.
However, as much as Alfred is The Worst, the other characters balance the scale. Joana was probably my favorite, a wonderful combination of resourceful, smart, kind, and brave. (Joana also ties into Between Shades of Gray, for those of you who have read both books.) But they all had their moments. Emilia is kind and sweet, but with an underlying determination and selflessness that, on several occasions, took my breath away. And then there is Florian, reserved and secretive, yet motivated by a quiet nobility that kept me rooting for him throughout. I was so very invested in the fates of these three characters that I find myself still daydreaming about them days after finishing.
As for the story itself, I was surprised to find that the characters don’t even board the Wilhelm Gustloff until the second half of the book. (Perhaps I would have been more prepared for this had I realized that the Gustloff was only scheduled for a 48-hour trip, not a weeks-long voyage like the Titanic. So it makes sense that most of our time getting to know the characters happens before they reach the ship.)
The first half of the book chronicles the long trek of the refugees through the snowy countryside on their way to the port (or, in Alfred’s case, his preparations to sail). The journey to the ship is harrowing, as the characters are constantly trying to avoid both German and Russian soldiers, while also staving off frostbite, dehydration, and malnutrition. On the way, there are several horrifying incidents that show the terrible price of war, and even once they reach the port, the descriptions of the refugees are gutting. Sepetys thankfully never lingers on any single gruesome image for long, but through her careful descriptions and meticulously crafted sentences, you get a thorough mental image of the squalor, desperation, and terror of the characters and their surroundings.
Then there is their time on the Gustloff, cut tragically short by the sinking. Since I don’t want to get into spoilers, all I will say is that even though I knew the ship was going to sink, it was still devastating to read about. I was invested so deeply in the characters that watching them go through such an awful experience — no matter their personal outcome — was heartbreaking, and I spent the last chunk of the book reading through tears. It’s one thing to know about a tragic historic event; it’s another thing to experience it. Salt puts the reader right on the deck of the sinking ship, making us feel the panic and terror of the passengers, the biting cold of the water, the hopelessness of the death all around them, and, in spite of that, the steely resolve to keep struggling for survival.
As in her previous books, Ruta Sepetys’ prose shines, instantly transporting the reader to the world of her characters. Some authors struggle to convincingly juggle multiple points-of-view, but that is not the case in Salt to the Sea. Each of her four main characters has a distinctive voice and way of thinking which makes them easily distinguishable from one another. Also, the chapters are very short, with most lasting only two or three pages, so you never have to wait long to hear more from your favorite character. The brief chapters make that mental nudge to read “just one more chapter” easy to indulge, making this an incredibly swift read.
Salt to the Sea is a beautiful tale of a forgotten tragedy, set during one of the darkest periods of our history. It is respectfully and meticulously researched, but never feels like it’s working too hard to educate; instead, it sweeps the reader up in its vivid characters, gorgeous prose, and compelling storytelling, and if we are more historically knowledgeable by the end, that just feels like a bonus. One may expect a tale like this to leave the reader with a sense of despair, but although the story is full of moments of horror and death and unspeakable devastation, it balances them with moments of friendship, love, sacrifice, heroism, generosity, and kindness. In spite of the bleak time in which it is set, and the disastrous event that serves as its centerpiece, the Salt to the Sea ultimately manages to be hopeful, moving, inspiring, and immensely satisfying.