This book review will contain spoilers, most of which are already known because of the time period this novel was set in. Nonetheless, if you haven’t read this book, please be wary (and go read it!).
Also, not gonna lie, I cried a few times during this book.
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys has made its way onto my favorites list, and for good reason. I’d been struggling for three weeks with Glass Sword by Victoria Aveyard (reasons for which will be in my wrap-up), and I decided to put it on hold. I wanted to try something a little different, and preferably a standalone so I decided to read Salt to the Sea. From the first page itself, I knew I’d made the right decision.
Salt to the Sea is a historical fiction novel set during the final year of the Second World War when the Russians have advanced on Germany, and Germany’s defeat seems inevitable. It follows four characters who are all on a mission to board the Wilhelm Gustloff to reunite with their families, to get to safety and, for one character in particular, carry out a mission for Hitler involving the Amber Room. Obviously, the Second World War is real, and so is the Wilhelm Gustloff, but the four main characters are fictionalized as a way for Sepetys to interpret how people possibly boarded the vessel.
The Wilhelm Gustloff was a part of Operation Hannibal, a naval evacuation by sea of German troops and civilians from East Prussia, the Polish Corridor and Courland. It was carrying more than 10,000 passengers at its time of departure, and when it was torpedoed by Russian submarine S-13, more than 9,000 lives were lost, 5,000 of which were children. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is the worst maritime disaster in history, facing six times more casualties than the Titanic and the Lusitania (which was torpedoed during World War I), yet most people know nothing or close to nothing about the ship.
As a history student who has studied Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia and the Second World War extensively, I was surprised to know that I knew nothing about this ship and the disaster despite having read about and studied this time period so extensively. It’s always nice to learn something new, and despite the fact that it’s been 71 years since the war ended, there are still so many more untold stories, just like the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.
I’m not going to spend more time talking about the ship and turn this into a history lesson. If you’d like to learn more about the ship and this disaster, you can check out Cathryn J. Price’s novel, Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, which can be bought here. You can also read more about Operation Hannibal and the other ships that were sunk during this operation online. Ruta Sepetys did an interview with Time where she talks about her book, her research and her theories behind why this disaster is not talked about more. It can be found here.
Moving on to the actual novel, I want to first talk about the writing. This novel is written in four alternating perspectives; Joana, a Lithuanian nurse who has been repatriated and is on a mission to meet her mother and figure out where the rest of her family is, Emilia, a fifteen-year-old Pole who’s hiding something and is trying to get to safety, Florian, a German restoration artist who’s carrying out an important mission for Hitler, and Alfred, an overenthusiastic German soldier.
What is so beautiful about the way Sepetys writes these alternating perspectives is that there is no overlap, no mention of the same event from different points of view (except for when the ship sank), so this moves the story along much quicker than if there had been overlapping. Each character usually has a page, a page and a half, or two at the most, but in that short length, you learn so much about these characters. Even though the story keeps changing perspectives, it isn’t hard to become attached to these characters because of the way Sepetys describes their journey and their emotions.
Her descriptions are incredibly worded, and while some people may find this complicated, it adds so much more depth to the story and makes it more complex. What Sepetys has managed to do through her writing is make the reader understand and empathize with these characters who are suffering from the war.
Now, let’s talk about the characters. (I’m going to talk about them in the order they were introduced to me in the book.) All of the characters are unique in their own ways, and they come from different parts of Europe with their own secrets and their own struggles. Sepetys crafts them so carefully and skillfully, that even as a reader who has no connections to war or occupation, I can empathize with all these characters. Suddenly the war we read about in textbooks is given a human face and feels a lot more personal.
First, there’s Joana, whose first line in the book is Guilt is a hunter, and she carries this guilt with her throughout the book. She’s a Lithuanian nurse who has been repatriated to Germany and is in search of her mother so that she can figure out where the rest of her family is. She’s gentle and caring but gets the job done. She’s strong, full of willpower and puts the others ahead of her own needs.
Next, we have Florian, whose first line is Fate is a hunter. Florian is on a special mission for Hitler and believes that he’s carrying something that Hitler wants. Florian is a German restoration artist who worked with Erich Koch, one of Hitler’s SS men, and was allegedly involved in the smuggling of the Amber Room. Florian is very mysterious at first, not revealing his identity to anyone, constantly gripping his pack and just being very silent. Eventually, he opens up to Joana (who he ends up falling for. They even get married!) and you learn more about him as the story progresses. He had to be my favorite character out of the four main characters because of his complexity and also because his mission was very different from the others.
Next, we have Emilia, whose first line is Shame is a hunter. Emilia is a Polish fifteen year old girl who’s trying to conceal her identity and another secret. The first character crossover in this book happens between Florian and Emilia, and over the course of the book they form a heart-touching bond, like a brother and sister. I can’t say much about Emilia without giving away one of the biggest plot reveals, so I’m just going to keep my mouth shut.
Lastly, we have Alfred, an overenthusiastic Nazi soldier, whose first line is Fear is a hunter. He’s the only character who doesn’t interact with the other three until a third or maybe halfway through the book. Most of his story is told through imaginary letters to his lady love, Hannelore. We learn a lot about Alfred through these letters, the most important being that he thinks he’s better than everyone else. He’s absolutely obsessed with making sure he’s being rewarded for all the work he seems to be doing, rather than actually helping anyone out. I didn’t like Alfred, and I kept hoping he’d die when the ship sunk.
Those are all the major characters in the book. They were all written so beautifully and they represented how the war affected different people in different ways. This novel truly has become a favorite of mine for all the right reasons.
It still astounds me to know that the disaster of the Wilhelm Gustloff is still not known to most people. This story will live on with me forever. Sepetys has truly written a story to memorialize all those who were lost in this maritime disaster, all those who survived, and all those who were affected by this war. Now, for me, the Wilhelm Gustloff will remain a symbol of all the other stories from this war, and other historical events, that remain untold.
If you’re a fan of historical fiction, or just love history in general, I definitely recommend checking this book out. Even if you don’t like history, I promise this book won’t disappoint.
Totally visualized a lot of scenes from Titanic while I was reading this book, not gonna lie.
Final verdict: 5/5 stars
Thanks for checking out my review, I hope you enjoyed it and I truly do hope you check out Salt to the Sea. I will definitely be checking out other books by Ruta Sepetys, especially Between Shades of Gray, that has a character crossover.
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As always, I will see you guys with another bookish post, but until then, I hope you have a great morning, afternoon or night wherever in the world you may be!