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Book Review: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Book Review - Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Title: Salt to the SeaBook Review - Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Author: Ruta Sepetys

Publisher: Penguin Books

Genre: Historical Fiction

First Publication: 2016

Language: English

Major Characters: Joana, Alfred Frick, Florian Beck, Emilia

Setting Place: East Prussia during World War II

Theme: Willpower and Fate, Storytelling and Fantasy, Memory and Survival, War

Narrator: First person, from the perspective of four different characters


Book Summary: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

It’s early 1945 and a group of people trek across Germany, bound together by their desperation to reach the ship that can take them away from the war-ravaged land. Four young people, each haunted by their own dark secret, narrate their unforgettable stories. Fans of The Book Thief or Helen Dunmore’s The Siege will be totally absorbed.

This inspirational novel is based on a true story from the Second World War. When the German ship the Wilhelm Gustloff was sunk in port in early 1945 it had over 9000 civilian refugees, including children, on board. Nearly all were drowned. Ruta Sepetys, acclaimed author of Between Shades of Grey, brilliantly imagines their story.


Book Review: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

I had never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff before I read this book. I had a morbid fascination with the Titanic as a child, but I guess it never occurred to me to research other maritime tragedies? Anyway, the Wilhelm Gustloff is like the Titanic disaster on steroids: Three Russian torpedoes sank this ship so damn fast during WW2; There were too few lifeboats, and too much panic/disorganization in filling the lifeboats; It was the dead of winter (just being exposed to the frigid sea air for too long could kill you, let alone the water itself). Top all that with the fact that this ship was filled five times its capacity with the sorriest kind of passengers, namely: wounded German soldiers, refugee children.

Apparently, the Gustloff disaster claimed the largest loss of life in ship sinking history (over 9,000 lives). So why haven’t I (or anyone I know) heard of it? I suspect it’s because it happened during wartime- there were so many unspeakable tragedies that this was just another on an endless list of catastrophe.

Wilhelm Gustloff
Wilhelm Gustloff

But Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys shows another side to the story- the innocent bystanders of war. The children who had everything stolen from them: their homes, their families, their futures. The ones who never got to choose which side to be on and spent each day thereafter just trying to survive. After a long journey, they, too, boarded this ship with the hope that finally they were safe.

“What had human beings become? Did war make us evil or just activate an evil already lurking within us?”

Abandoned or separated from their families, they were forced to battle the beast of war on their own, left with an inheritance of heartache and responsibility for events they had no rile in causing.

In this story, we have all the bleakness and hardship of war combined with an extremely tragic maritime disaster. I knew I was in for a heartbreaking story with this book, and I was right.

The story is told from four point-of-views. I liked Joana and Florian from the start. Emilia took some time to grow on me but ultimately became my favorite character. I wasn’t sure what to think of Alfred. I wasn’t sure if I should feel bad for him because he’s obviously delusional and has major issues but one thing is certain: I haven’t so passionately disliked a character this way in a long, long time.

“War is catastrophe. It breaks families in irretrievable pieces. But those who are gone are not necessarily lost.”

Joana is part of a group of refugees trying to stay ahead of the rapidly advancing Red Army. It’s the winter of 1945, and the East Prussia has dissolved into chaos. The German government refuses to issue evacuation orders, but, with rumors swirling about unspeakable atrocities committed by the Russians, most civilians are uninterested in waiting for protocol. Joana uses her training as a nurse to help who she can along the arduous trek to the Baltic Sea. In addition to her luggage, she carries her emotional baggage: her actions might have murdered her cousin and best friend, Lina.

Emilia is fifteen and eight months pregnant. She’s already seen what the Russians do to the townspeople they “liberate,” but, as a Pole, she isn’t welcome among the Germans, either. Her father sent her to East Prussia to work on a farm. It was to keep her safe, but Emilia suffered more than her father could probably ever imagine. Along the way, she meets with a German man who saves her from a would-be rapist. She will follow her knight to safety.

“Killers aren’t always assassins. Sometimes, they don’t even have blood on their hands.”

Florian is a talented art restorer who thought he was helping the Reich preserve some of the most important pieces in history. When he realized what his talents were really being used for he fled but not before enacting a little revenge. Now he wants to reunite with his sister in Denmark and hopefully leave the Nazis behind for good. Unfortunately, a Polish girl latches on to him as her savior, when it’s very inconvenient of him to feel things for other humans. And then he gets embroiled with a group of refugees headed up by a pretty Lithuanian nurse.

Alfred knows he’s very valuable to the Reich, even if he was a late recruit into the Navy. He’s a true believer in Hitler’s vision and works very hard to have no empathy for others. After all, there are winners and losers in the game of life, and Germans like him are winners. In his head, he writes imaginary letters of all his adventures to Hannelore, the girl back home he fancies. When he comes across a soldier with a top secret mission, Alfred knows helping him could earn him a medal, and the respect he finally deserves.

“Just when you think this war has taken everything you loved, you meet someone and realize that somehow you still have more to give.”

These four people, just getting a start to their lives, are all aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff when Soviet torpedoes sink it into the icy waters. The vessel was filled several times over capacity with German refugees escaping East Prussia. Of the 10,000 approximately on board, less than a thousand would survive.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys was an excellent book. She is one of the best female authors writing historical fiction books about second world war.  It’s fast-paced, thoroughly-researched, basically it encompasses all the best things about historical fiction. Ruta Sepetys’ novel Between Shades of Gray has been on my tbr for a long time and I’ll definitely be bumping it up to a higher priority.


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