Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. Philomel Books, 2016.
And we’re back to our regularly scheduled programming here on Rose Read! My first grad school courses are done, the Rememberall Readathon is over, and the Cursed Child is out in the world wreaking havoc, so it’s time to return to a bit of rest and normalcy. I’m so excited to share this review, because this is one of the best books I’ve read in a while, and I want people to pick it up!
(This review is spoiler-free!)
I read Salt to the Sea as part of the children’s/YA non-fiction class I just took, though the book is not non-fiction, but historical fiction (we read it to examine the differences between non-fiction and historical fiction and the implications the genre has for young readers we serve as librarians). And it was wonderful.
Salt to the Sea is based on the largest maritime disaster in history for loss of life on a single ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, which sank in the Baltic Sea in 1945. If you find it weird that you’ve never heard of this event, despite it being the largest maritime disaster in history, don’t feel bad, most people haven’t. I hadn’t either. Here’s why: the ship was part of Operation Hannibal, a German plan to evacuate civilians and military personnel from war-torn areas during WWII. The ship’s capacity was about 1,400, but in their desperation, they crammed over 10,000 people aboard on its final voyage. The ship was hit by Russian torpedoes a few hours in, resulting in over 9,000 deaths, about 5,000 of which were children. (To put this in perspective, the Titanic sinking resulted in the loss of about 1,500 souls total). The event was not publicized widely due to the fact that any story sympathetic to Germans at the time would not have been well-received. But it wasn’t just Germans who perished on the ship, it was Latvians, Estonians, Lithuanians, Prussians, etc., and plenty of German innocents seeking refuge and safety for their families. Salt to the Sea tells this story.
I’m a sucker for books narrated in multiple perspectives which weave the characters’ stories together, and this book does that beautifully. It follows 4 main characters: Joana, a Lithuanian nurse with a dark secret; Florian, a Prussian boy with a dark secret; Emilia, a Polish girl with a dark secret; and Alfred, a German soldier with a dark secret. A diverse cast with dark secrets all around. And they all end up on the Wilhelm Gustloff. The book does an excellent job of portraying teens from very different backgrounds and situations who all end up fighting for their lives in one way or another.
The character I found the most intriguing was the German soldier, Alfred. His narration is often told through letters he writes in his head to a girl he loves back home. But as you read his sections, you start to suspect that Alfred has a developmental or intellectual disability of some sort. This is never explicitly stated, but as I got to know more about his personality and life, I had suspicions, as did many of my classmates. His character has rich layers of complexity; narration from a devoted Nazi’s point of view is staggering to begin with, and adding the possibility that the character might have a developmental disability makes it even more interesting, even puzzling at times. The other soldiers bully him, yet Alfred has the delusion that he will be a great Nazi hero one day, though he is basically the lowest-of-the-low on the Nazi totem pole. You can’t trust him as a narrator, and if there’s another literary element I’m a sucker for, it’s an unreliable narrator.
Another thing I love about this book is that not only are the 4 principal characters gripping, but the secondary characters are equally vivid and engaging. With this style of storytelling, it would have been easy to focus on the 4 characters and let the others slip, but the secondary characters are at times more interesting. My favorite character was a nameless man they called “the shoe poet” because he is a shoemaker who offers solemn advice throughout the book, often in metaphors about shoes. It is a vivid cast all around.
I don’t want to give anything else away, because this book is best read without knowing too much, and I don’t have anything substantial to say by way of the ending or other spoilers other than it is an utterly beautiful book. The writing style is graceful, the plot perfectly constructed. Ruta Sepetys wanted to give life to voices that have been lost in history, and she does so brilliantly. I am certainly going to pick up her other books now, Between Shades of Gray (in which one of the main characters in Salt to the Sea appears) and Out of the Easy.
This book will make you cry. I read it in 2 sittings, reluctantly, as it was tough to put down. I give it a solid 5 out of 5 stars.