WOW… another 5-star read for 2020. It’s only been two days, and I already want to re-read this exceptionally powerful novel.
Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: YA, historical fiction, survival
Favorite quote: “I wept because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”
First line: “Guilt is a hunter.”
It’s January, 1945, and Germany is falling. Thousands of people flee northeastern Europe as the Soviets close in from the East, desperate to escape both Stalin and Hitler.
“Evacuation orders had been issued. Germany was finally telling people what they should have said months ago. Run for your lives.”
Refugees pour into East Prussia, attempting to pass as German citizens and board the overcrowded ships that will carry them west to relative safety.
Joana: a Lithuanian nurse hiding a dark secret
Florian: a Prussian escaping with stolen contraband from the Nazis
Emilia: a pregnant Polish girl concealing her traumatic past
and Alfred: a delusional and sociopathic Nazi soldier with a superiority complex.
The paths of these four people unexpectedly cross when they all find themselves aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff: the ship that is so many people’s last hope. The ship that is loaded 9,000 people over-capacity. The ship that only has 12 lifeboats.
The ship that will be torpedoed by a Russian submarine in the Baltic Sea and become the single most deadly maritime disaster on record.
Ruta Sepetys’ writing in this book is amazing.
I had 50 Kindle highlights because, as I read in someone else’s review, almost every word had a purpose.
Like most of Sepetys’ novels, Salt to the Sea is a very character-driven story. It has a lot of action as well, but much of the plot is focused on the characters. You find yourself emotionally invested in each one of them (except Alfred) and that makes everything that happens seem even more brutal.
Emilia was my favorite character; I also really liked Florian. And Joana as well. Okay, I loved all of them.
But don’t even get me started on ALFRED. I feel like Ruta may have tried a little too hard to get us to hate him.
He spends the entire book composing narcissistic letters to his “darling”, a girl named Hannelore, and being an insufferable creep. He doesn’t even write the letters down, just composes them in his head, which is… very creepy. He’s psychotic. It was pretty obvious that his perspective was intended to make you uncomfy.
His character raised some exceedingly interesting and relevant points about propaganda and brainwashing, though.
Alfred completely buys into the idea of being a “Good German” and contributing to the Third Reich. Everything he does is specifically calculated to advance his rank and fulfill his grandly inflated ego. He worships his superiors and doesn’t question a thing.
“‘You’ve read Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf?’ [Alfred] asked.
I didn’t answer the question. ‘You know, you strike me as an intelligent guy. It might be better for you to think for yourself, rather than memorizing the words of others.’”
Although- fortunately- we don’t live in Nazi Germany, this quote is indubitably relevant. Every single day, I see people regurgitate things on social media without an ounce of fact-checking or independent thought; it’s genuinely concerning.
Also, I had never heard of the tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff before I read this book, and I was shocked to learn that the sinking was more deadly than both the Titanic AND the Lusitania– yet I had never heard anything about it.
The facts of this event are shocking: the ship was filled to 10 times its intended capacity. There were only 12 lifeboats. 9,000 people died when it was torpedoed on January 30, 1945. I honestly couldn’t believe I never heard about this.
All of Ruta Sepetys’ books focus on “forgotten history” and she is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors.
It’s also really rare to find a WW2 book in YA (and the historical fiction market is saturated with them) that doesn’t take place in a) America b) England or c) western Europe. I had never read anything that takes place on the Eastern Front, so I learned a ton from this book.
This probably sounds ignorant, but it truly never occurred to me that people living in the Baltic region would rather flee to Germany than be overtaken by Stalin. Salt to the Sea places a lot of emphasize on the crimes of Russia during the war, which is a side of history I hadn’t thought as much about.
That brings me to my next point: this is an (unsurprisingly) dark & violent story. I promised myself I wouldn’t cry while reading this because I was reading it on the beach! in public! I succeeded, but barely.
Sepetys’ writing is so vivid, and as I said before, you can’t help but fall in love with the characters. It’s equal parts sad and horrifying, but definitely worth the read.
As you can probably tell from this extraordinarily long-winded review, I loved this book.
I would recommend it to any historical fiction fans, or anyone who wants to read a beautiful, albeit fairly dark story.