Review: Salt to the Sea

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Philomel, 2016.  Hardcover, 391 pages.Cover: Salt to the SEa

First off, while this is a book review it would also be perfect for a third installment of my “Understanding History through Fiction” series.  Why?  Sepetys inspired the first and she has struck again.  In fact, none of her three books have been a disappointment; they have been quite the opposite.  I was still in the first year of my blog when I wrote about her debut novel, Between Shades of Gray.  Because of the content, I chose not to review Out of the Easy, which is set in 1950s New Orleans and features a brothel.  However, it is also a powerful read as one girl struggles to overcome her past and live her own life against her mother’s will.  All three novels have featured strong young women placed in hard situations.

Salt to the Sea tells the story of a group of refugees in the last months of Hitler’s Germany.  All are trying to escape the invading Russians by reaching a Prussian port to escape to greater Germany. Joana is a nurse and cousin of Lena from Between Shades of Gray.  She is leading a small group including a blind girl, an older shoemaker, and a young boy they found.  Along the way, this group encounters Florian and Emilia.  Florian is a young Prussian opposed to Hitler’s rule and is escaping with knowledge of artwork Germany stole.  Hoping to revenge his late family, he hopes to pass the information on to the Allies.  Emilia is first encountered when Florian saves her life; she was from Poland and had been subjected to rape and the Russians invaded.  Together these three young people and their group must make their way westward to avoid the Russians.  Along the way, they face hard choices, death, starvation, and must determine who is really their friend or foe.  Meanwhile, also detailed is the fourth main character, Alfred, a young sailor and fanatical Nazi who they will later encounter.  At the novel’s end, all are aboard the ill-fated Wilhelm Gustloff and experience the worst maritime disaster in history.  Who will survive?

I have read several nonfiction books that have dealt with the plight of Jews who evaded capture and of the starvation of post-war Europe, but nothing about the refugees at the end of the war.  However, based on the two categories of books I have read, I have no doubt to the truth of what Sepetys wrote.  The issues faced were the same: starvation, desperation, fear of the invading/occupying Russians, and the desire to reconnect with family.  Her works are always well researched.  And each character has true emotions, expressed in this novel by alternating chapters in the first person from each main character.  Granted, Alfred’s are sickening but they provide a counterpoint to the other three.  It would be hard from someone not to read this novel and feel Lena’s regrets, Florian’s determination to trump evil, and Emilia’s struggles to overcome her past and move forward.  Then added to this is the shock of how a ship meant  for about 1,500 was modified to carry over 10,000 and struck down by a Russian torpedo in the worst, but most little known, maritime disaster.  This novel is very much worth the read for all teens and adults to better understand these aspects of World War II.

Do you think you will read this novel?  If you already have, what were your thoughts?  Also, had you heard of the tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff before?

If you wish to read a similarly-themed book, Gunter Grass’ novel Crabwalk also deals with the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.  Chris Bohjalian’s Skeletons at the Feast is a novel detailing the travels of a different group of refugees.  Neither have the impact Sepetys work managed to accomplish.


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