Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Time magazine calls the disaster six times deadlier than the titanic. The story of the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff, or more precisely, of its victims in 1945 is detailed by Ruta Sepetys. The historical fiction expert is known for delving into unknown historical events and unfolding their secrets through enchanting characters and cleverly weaved storylines. Her newest novel ,Salt to the Sea, published in 2016 offers an insightful look into the world of those escaping from Soviet hands in World War 2. The story is told through four different perspectives of four different refugees running to their only hope of safety. Joana is the first character introduced, a young Lithuanian woman who has a passion for medicine and who uses her training as a surgeon’s assistant to aid those she encounters who are in desperate need of attention. I appreciated her strength and kindness; she allowed those around her to remember there was still goodness in the world. Florian is the next refugee introduced, a young man from East Prussia who has a secret he strives to conceal throughout the journey. His character grows and develops throughout the novel and I grew an attachment to him because of his determination and persistence in helping those he loves escape from difficult situations. We are also introduced to Emilia, the youngest refugee of about fifteen years old from Poland. Though young, Sepetys made sure to emphasize the many problems that arose in this time period through the character. Emilia’s youth and naïveté helped me sympathize more with the refugees and helped me grow an understanding of how it felt to have her life ripped away and replaced with one of horror and darkness. Sepetys also uses Alfred, the last major refugee, to advance the plot line. Unlike the others, Alfred is part of the German army, and proud of it. His character is quite interesting and as the story progressed, I was shocked to discover his distinct thoughts and feelings about the war. I certainly did not grow a strong attachment with Alfred, but I believe Sepetys wanted to include Alfred as part of the different characters that took part in the Wilhelm Gustloff’s fateful story.I thoroughly enjoyed this work of historical fiction because it painted the raw image of life and death in a time where the latter seemed inevitable. I had always read stories about other countries striving to escape from Germany or the Soviet Union, but I had little to no knowledge about Germans running from the enemy. Often I think that we place such an emphasis on Germany’s fault for the war that we forget that many people did not agree with Hitler’s mantra, but rather sought peace and love for everyone. One of the reasons I love this story is because the group that forms throughout the novel is bonded together by love and teamwork born from hardships. I found myself not being able to put the book down because I had to know what happened; I was on the edge of my seat and flipping through the story of Joana, Florian, Emilia, and Alfred. Sepetys also did a wonderful job in including small details that make the story even better. Among those are Emilia’s prominent pink hat that becomes a symbolism of hope and perseverance throughout the novel, an older man’s love for shoes and the many ways they impact and tell the story of someone’s life, and the different ways that each character is haunted. Each character has internal war raging within them; whether it be guilt, fate, shame, or fear, the aspects are unraveled as tensions and tragedy increases. However, the persistent darkness in this tale can not harm the love and hope that blossoms within the characters through this astoundingly tragic, and yet beautiful journey.