Book Review: Salt to the Sea // Ruta Sepetys

Ruta Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea is a ground-breaking piece of historical fiction that sheds light on a forgotten event in history: the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. The Wilhelm Gustloff was a Nazi hospital ship which was carrying refugees away from the advancing Red Army. The majority of these people had false papers – they were Polish, Lithuanian, and other nationalities. Living in Russia or Germany meant imprisonment and death. The Wilhelm Gustloff was their only hope.

The New York Times describes Sepetys as “champion of the interstitial people so often ignored — whole populations lost in the cracks of history”, and this is definitely the case for Salt to the Sea.

The real life Wilhelm Gustloff – Image via Wikipedia/Bundesarchiv

Sepetys’ novel follows the intertwining stories of four young people, Joana, Florian, Emilia ,and Alfred as they journey towards and then on the Wilhelm Gustloff.  Each character has a different reason for wanting to be onboard the Gustloff. Joana is haunted by guilt from events four years ago and is desperate to try and put things right. One of the ways she does that is by leading a small group of people to the Gustloff. Through this group she meets Emilia – a 15-year-old polish girl whose life was changed forever when she was sent to stay with family friends.

Florian is running from what he believes is his destiny.  On this journey, he meets Joanna and Emilia. Together they make the dangerous journey to the Gustloff, becoming an unlikely group of friends. I would say that the most interesting perspective comes from Alfred. Sepetys tells his story through letters he is sending his girlfriend in Germany. Through these letters, the extent of his brainwashing is revealed. It is frightening yet eye-opening to the dedication and loyalty these young boys had to the Nazi regime. A stark reminder of quickly ideologies spread.

Sepetys’ writing shines through her use of multiple perspectives. This structure can be confusing, but Sepetys creates four unique voices which brings her characters to life. She says that the use of different perspectives was done to “give voice to a particular regional experience and allow the reader to look through their “lens.”

Sepetys creates a unique reading experience which fully immerses the reader in the lives of not only the characters of the novel but the lives of the thousands of people who perished on the Wilhelm Gustloff.  Life is breathed into history, those who perished are immortalised. The fear they felt, the trauma, the tragedy is all encapsulated in a sensitive yet interesting way. 

Three years prior to the release of Salt to the Sea, Sepetys was awarded the Cross of the Knight of the Order by the President of Lithuania for her contributions to education and memory preservation. Out of the more than 10,600 people onboard (it is impossible to know the true number as many were undocumented), 9,600 perished making it the biggest maritime disaster in history. Salt to the Sea educates its readers on a tragedy that is not taught in schools.

A harrowing yet heart-warming read. If you are looking for a novel about survival, family love and war, then Salt to the Sea is the perfect novel for you.

Words by Orla McAndrew 

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