By Ruta Sepetys
Winter 1945. A little-known tragedy worse than the Titanic. Four young people running for their lives. This is Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys.
Salt to the Sea is set mainly in East Prussia (now divided between the Soviet Union and Poland), in World War Two. Hitler didn’t want to evacuate, as he thought that would send a sign that they were losing the war, but by Winter the Russian Army was closing in, and they had no choice. For some the only escape was over water – The Baltic Sea, so ships were prepared to carry thousands over the oceans to safety. One such ship was the Wilhelm Gustloff.
The Wilhelm Gustloff is our characters’ last hope.
Salt to the Sea is truly the most moving novel I have ever read. It is the profound and honest tale of what has been described as “the greatest disaster in maritime history”.
This book is beautifully written in lyrical, short sentences. Ruta Sepetys uses only what she needs to convey the story, yet is able to include so many little details, and this truthfulness and simplicity is what makes the story so effective.
The writing has a feel about it that is slightly wistful or nostalgic. It is gives every character a backstory, a motive, a meaning. It is not thoughtlessly violent when violence comes, but empathetic. The tone is almost reminiscent of The Boy in Striped Pajamas, if told by older, less naive characters. However, the story itself is completely unique. I have never read anything like it, and it is truly a masterpiece.
The thing I loved most about this book is the perspective it offers from all areas of the story, making the build-up and climax infinitely more impactful. It is told in alternating first person narrative from four different characters. Each has a secret. Each has a story. All are portrayed in such a way that they feel like real people with real emotions and lives. Even the side characters are so amazing and well developed, you really begin to love and want the best for them.
Salt to the Sea conveys war so well. There are brutal characters and heartless characters and death, but beneath all that there are good, kind, self-sacrificing people, who shed a little light on the darkness that so thoroughly surrounds them.
The four protagonists are:
Joana – A young Lithuanian woman who trained as a nurse and travels with a small group of people, none of whom are her family.
Emilia – A Polish girl running from Russian soldiers, who may never see her home again.
Florian – A Prussian boy who had something Hitler would very dearly want.
Albert – A Nazi soldier in love with his cause.
I adored how well fleshed out and realistic they all were, and how intriguing it was to read from their points of view.
My personal favourite was Emilia because she was so caring and loving, even after all she’d been through. Life threw her a difficult deck of cards, but she stayed strong through all the trauma and was, in my opinion, the bravest of them all.
I was not fond of Alfred at all, but I’ll let you make up your own mind. It can be really hard to read his chapters, but he still offers a really interesting and useful viewpoint, so it pays to push through.
This novel is a historical fiction and a great read for 13+. It is set in WWII and provides such an amazing and little-known insight to that period of time.
They say history is written by the victors. Salt to the Sea is written by the victims. This novel flows stunningly, building up tension to it’s climax, and you feel as though you are truly there, gasping for air as the words crash over you like waves, laughing with them, crying with them, living alongside them.
Salt to the Sea is based in a true incident, and that story is one that needs to be told. To be remembered. Harrowing and haunting, heart-warming and heart-breaking, Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys should be the next book you read.
Because even when you wish for it with all your heart, promises can’t always be kept. Can they?