War is catastrophe. It breaks families in irretrievable pieces. But those who are gone are not necessarily lost.Salt to the Sea, Pg. 378
Author – Ruta Sepetys
Genre – Historical Fiction, World War II
Published – February 2nd 2016 by Philomel Books
Pages – 378
Rating– 4.5/ 5
While the Titanic and Lusitania are both well-documented disasters, the single greatest tragedy in maritime history is the little-known January 30, 1945 sinking in the Baltic Sea by a Soviet submarine of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German cruise liner that was supposed to ferry wartime personnel and refugees to safety from the advancing Red Army. The ship was overcrowded with more than 10,500 passengers — the intended capacity was approximately 1,800 — and more than 9,000 people, including 5,000 children, lost their lives.
Sepetys (writer of ‘Between Shades of Gray’) crafts four fictionalized but historically accurate voices to convey the real-life tragedy. Joana, a Lithuanian with nursing experience; Florian, a Prussian soldier fleeing the Nazis with stolen treasure; and Emilia, a Polish girl close to the end of her pregnancy, converge on their escape journeys as Russian troops advance; each will eventually meet Alfred, a Nazi peon with delusions of grandeur, assigned to the Gustloff decks.
After reading Between Shades of Gray, I was guaranteed to pick up this one and I will say that this did not disappoint. Its official. A new favorite genre of mine is Historical Fiction and this means I accomplished one of my reading goals of 2020 – To expand into new genres! This book was phenomenal and quite emotional in certain parts as well and I strongly urge everyone to read it!
One of the most amazing aspects of Ruta Septeys’s novels are that they are about significant historical accounts which a lot of people have not heard but they should be remembered since they are very significant. In all honesty, I did not know anything about the Wilhelm Gustloff when I first ventured into this novel and I was astounded to learn about the plight of this ship and the tragic deaths which arose with its sinking.
With her writing, Ruta offers a diverse voice for each character and her use of parallelism in certain parts of the story were quite clever to see since I have not come across that style in other novels. Each of them carry their own secrets and it was interesting to see them slowly unravel through the story. Usually multiple POVs may drag the storyline or as a reader, we may end up liking one character over another but in this case, it was not true – Except maybe Albert because reading the thoughts of a a Nazi is quite disturbing but its interesting from a psychological perspective to see how his mind has been twisted into believing such ghastly thoughts.
Joanna – Lithuanian, Caring, Determined – It took me while to realize to recognize that Joanna was a character from Between Shades of Gray! As a companion novel to the book, Salt to the Sea shows the outcome of Joanna’s story and I love how Ruta was able to do this while tying in a piece of significant history. Joanna truly displays the qualities of a great nurse and I loved how determined she was to take care of those her around her. With the amount of shadows from her past which are following her, you see her struggle with her demons but also maintain a level head to get the people around her to safety. Such a Mom lol
“I moved from body to body, treating blisters, wounds, frostbite. But I had no treatment for what plagued people the most. Fear.” – Pg 21
Florian – Prussian, Mysterious, “The Knight” 🙂 – While being a lone traveler from the start, it is interesting to see him open up and bond with the other characters. While he does have his reasons for wanting to travel alone, certain circumstances bring him to the group and you see his character slowly develop and welcome those moments of comfort and love. I especially loved the moments with him and one of the secondary characters, The Poet! Emilia initially calls him “The Knight” and while he may not appear so in the beginning since he tends to have his guard up at all times, he certainly does become one at the end 🙂 I also adored the moments with him and Joanna! It was realistically portrayed without overshadowing the main plotline.
“Did war make us evil or just activate the evil already lurking within us?” – Pg. 79
Emilia – Polish, Kind, Resilient; OMG. Such a sweet yet amazing character. While it may not appear so in the beginning, I certainly loved her by the end. I am so thankful that Ruta wrote about a young woman like her since there probably a lot of woman who are like her. I loved her brother/sister relationship with Florian. It was quite sweet to see! And I think this is one of the things that Ruta does best. While the novel is dark, she weaves in certain moments that can ease our heartache and offer light/hope.
“Was there a bird for the souls of people like me?” – pg 115
Alfred – Nazi Sailor, Narcissist, Superiority Complex. As mentioned before, I was not a fan of his perspective since I found them to be quite disturbing but there are certain moments where I did feel for him due to the overwhelming dismissive attitude he receives from his superiors and fellow sailors/ soldiers. However, it is still no excuse to have such backward attitudes about other cultures as members of the Nazi regime did.
“You see, fear is a hunter. It encircles us when we are unarmed and least expect it.” – Pg 353
Secondary Characters – I cannot just leave out all the side characters in the novel. They were all truly a gem! Ingrid (So insightful and brilliant!), The Poet (Such an amazing character, Loved how he can understand everyone through their shoes!), Klaus (such a precious baby, I want to give him a hug) and Eva (Lord. While she can be obnoxious sometimes, she does have her good moments)! Their interactions between the main characters offered moments of beautiful character development and I loved seeing that progress!
One of the most beautiful aspects of this novel is how it ties together the threads of humanity, love and perseverance. Moments of darkness truly tests the human spirit but it is within these moments when humanity rises to face its adversary with ultimate levels of courage and love. This is clearly displayed within the moments of the ship’s sinking and how the characters strive to take care of one another and help others get to safety.
The World War II era is probably one of the most written about settings in historical fiction. But what makes this one truly special is that it sheds a light on a significant piece of history that we have missed out on. It is crazy to think that a ship capable of holding only 1800 people ended up carrying 10,500! And nearly 9000 people died! To even think about the amount of despair and panic these people must have experienced during this time is truly devastating. Ruta was able to capture these heartbreaking moments with precision and detail that you really feel for the characters and what they were witnessing.
Did I get emotional? Yes.
Did I tear up? Yes.
Would I recommend this book? ABSOLUTELY YES!
If you have not picked up Salt to the Sea yet, I highly suggest that you do because it has pretty much confirmed by new appreciation and love for historical fiction and it is important that these stories are heard and remembered.
I also loved the writing of this novel. Its not overly detailed but just enough to offer the best picture of the situation and characters that you feel a deep attachment for. Not to mention that it is extremely addicting! I think it helped that each POV was quite short and ended with a slight cliffhanger that you could not help but continue reading. I finished this book within two work days which is kind of crazy for me! I also felt there were perfect doses of romance which does not take away from the storyline, tension to create a gripping storyline, mystery to evoke your interest and a bit of action as well.
Did any of you read Salt to the Sea? What were your thoughts on it?
Until next time, keep reading and I will see you all soon with another bookish post!