During the harsh winter of 1945, four teenagers brace the violent cold and the threat of the Great War coming to an end, for the hope of a better life. But each teenager, born to a different homeland and hunted, hides a devastating secret. As thousands of desperate refugees descend on the coast amid a Soviet advance, four paths converge, each vying for a passage aboard the ship Wilhelm Gustloff, the last hope for safety and freedom. Inspired by the greatest maritime tragedy of the 20th century, this novel is an enlightening tale of hope and love during a shockingly little-known casualty disaster of World War II.
(Minor spoilers below)
This was the first Ruta Sepetys book I have read and it definitely won’t be my last. Dub me a life-long fan right now because Salt to the Sea was a masterpiece that was impossible to put down. I did not intend to read this book; I happened to stumble upon it when I was visiting my local library to borrow books for an interstate vacation. I borrowed the novel on a whim and could not be happier (I think I should starting borrowing books on a whim more often now).
Historical novels are my passion – I love learning about different cultures, different people and their experiences that have shaped world history. World War II was a tumultuous point of history that I find both fascinating and disturbing. I have never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff sinking and I don’t think many other people have, which is unfortunate. For those who don’t know the story, the Wilhelm Gustloff was a German military ship that was sunk by a Soviet submarine torpedo in the Baltic Sea. The ship was evacuating German civilians, Nazis and military persons from Gdynia in Poland, while the Red Army advanced. The ship was intended as a cruise ship, but was repurposed during the war. The ship had a capacity of 1,465 people, but 10,582 were shoved on board. Out of the 10,582 people on board, there were only 1,252 survivors.
So, based on these devastating facts, you can already guess that this book will be heartbreaking and it certainly was, not just through the events it was based upon, but also through Sepetys’ skill of characterisation. The characters were the heroes and the heart of the novel. The book is set from the perspective of four very different teenagers who derive from diverse backgrounds. The POV shifted between each character’s distinct voice which added a sense of realism to the novel and heightened my reading experience. I came to care for these characters and grieve with them as if they were real, not just the events the book was based upon.
My favourite character was Joana, the independent and intelligent nurse who becomes the designated leader of a group of refugees. She was so loyal to the unfortunate souls who found themselves under her care, and she cared deeply for everyone, leaving no one behind, even the weakest who would be a detriment in wartime. She was selfless and I felt an emotional connection with her that I have not felt for a female character in some time.
Florian was the most fascinating character out of the foursome and I looked forward to each of his chapters. At the beginning of the novel, he was this angry, frightened war-torn mess of a young man who is living life on the run. He was desperate and unwilling to form attachments, but by the end of the novel, he became an entirely different person. Sepetys executes a brilliant piece of character development that has the reader empathising and falling for Florian. His background was specifically interesting for me, as it revolved around the highly secretive art plunder the Nazi’s undertook during the war. I don’t know much about the theft committed by the Third Reich, but Sepetys elaborated on it perfectly, so much so that, once I finished the novel, I started researching the Amber Room and famous works of art still missing today. Read all about the Amber Room here and some missing artworks here.
Emilia was a touchingly beautiful character who I just wanted to bundle up in my arms and protect. Despite her young age and the fictional world she lived in to cope with the horror of what happened to her, Emilia developed into a powerful and strong young woman who managed to finally stand up for herself.
The character I struggled the most with was Alfred, and I’m sure everyone who has read this book would agree. At the beginning of the novel, I thought he was a Nazi of importance and in a position of power. But that was just a delusion. He was one of the most dedicated Nazis and was incredibly devoted to the cause and the Nazi’s messages. If he were a real person today in the 21st century, he would undoubtedly be one of those domestic terrorists you hear about on the news who go on a killing spree at high school. That is the best way to describe him. There were times I really felt for him and the way he was treated by others, but by the time his secret was revealed, I despised him. Sepetys is such a skilled writer to make my feelings for a character fluctuate so much.
Salt to the Sea was a beautiful and touching novel about one of the worst events in modern history. Despite the powerful content, Sepetys has really created a story about hope and heart, and how one can, despite the terror they experience, still persevere and live.