Though I applaud Ruta Sepetys’s attention to historical detail and her dedication to shedding light on the important true story of the largest maritime disaster in history, Salt to the Sea somehow falls short of true emotional resonance.
Title: Salt to the Sea
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult
Publication Date: September 2014
Paperback: 352 Pages
Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.
Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.
As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.
Yet not all promises can be kept.
Inspired by the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, bestselling and award-winning author Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray) lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II. An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel, though loosely tied through one character to Shades of Gray
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the Publisher
Format (e- or p-): Hardcover
The year, 1945. The place, the frigid road to Gdynia, Poland.
The players, four young souls from different homelands and of different backgrounds: Joana, the compassionate and educated Lithuanian nurse, who yearns for her beloved cousin and lost family; Florian, the Prussian artist who has a score to settle with his mentors and the Reich; Emilia, the Polish girl fleeing the Russian troops, who protects a secret under her coats and layers; and Alfred, the SS officer and sailor, who so passionately worships Hitler and yearns to prove his heroism to the world (and to his dear Hannelore).
In the last days of Nazi Germany, fleeing from Russian troops, these four characters all meet on the snowy path to Gdynia, to board the ill-fated Wilhelm Gustloff bound for Kiel, the northmost German city of Schleswig-Holstein.
The result, the largest maritime disaster and loss of life in recorded history.
Salt to the Sea is Ruta Sepetys’s highly-anticipated and much-hyped new novel–a work of historical fiction, telling the story of the tens, hundreds, thousands of souls displaced during World War II. Facing the dual threats of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, and the regimes of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and atrocities on both fronts, Salt to the Sea is novel rooted in history and years of careful research (per Sepetys’s author note). Through the eyes of four young narrators, this book reveals the tragic story of the Wilhelm Gustlof–which, despite its 9000+ deaths at the hands of Russian torpedoes, half of which were children, remains an oft-overlooked disaster in maritime history. Salt to the Sea is also a book loosely tied to Sepetys’s bestselling and award-nominated novel Between Shades of Gray, which similarly told the story of Lithuanians during WWII.
There is no denying that Ruta Sepetys’s has done an impressive and exhaustive amount of research for this book–her touching author’s note and the further backmatter in Salt to the Sea speaks for itself. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustlof was something I had heard and read of before, but only because I studied and focused on 20th century economic and political history as an undergraduate–and even then, this vessel’s fate was a paragraph in a textbook. Certainly, it’s not a story as well known as the tragic fate of the Titanic, the Lusitania, the USS Arizona… and for wanting to tell this particular story and draw attention to this forgotten ship and its civilian cargo, I deeply respect and applaud Ms. Sepetys. If nothing else, Salt to the Sea impresses upon readers the enormity of the impact of this second great war on the civilians who were kicked out of their homes, who trudged kilometer after kilometer through snow and cold. It captures the sheer scale of loss for countries and states either forgotten, or absorbed, or reclaimed: Eastern Prussia, Poland, and Lithuania most especially, but also the German state civilians who were relocated and made their desperate way to the coast in Operation Hannibal to escape the Eastern Front press of the Russian Red Army.
This huge, sweeping scale of loss and horror, examined through Sepetys’s young narrators as they make their way to port, is where Salt to the Sea is most effective. I felt these characters’s desperation, their will to survive and make it one day further towards hopeful salvation, their grief and guilt for all those who were left behind or who died on the long hard road.
And yet, for all of this research, scale and gravitas, somehow Salt to the Sea remains strangely lacking as a story and a novel. That is to say, though I applaud Sepetys’s attention to historical detail and her dedication to shedding light on the important true story of the largest maritime disaster in history, Salt to the Sea somehow falls short of true emotional resonance.
A large part of this is structural–the novel is told from the perspective of four narrators in rapid, alternating chapters. Each chapter is at most 4 pages long, and more often a scant few paragraphs on two double spaced pages. The effect is jarring and often unsatisfying, and the overall impression is that these characters are mere impressions of people rather than actual people–a situation exacerbated by each character’s tendency to end each chapter on a melodramatic, forced-cliffhanger type of note.
Beyond the structural objection, the other issue I had with the characters themselves lies with some of the associations made. Joana is repeatedly referred to by all as the “Pretty Nurse”–not only by the Nazi characters at port and on the ship, but more disturbingly by Florian, her love interest–over and over and over again. She is not the nurse, or Joana, but the Pretty Lithuanian or the Pretty Nurse. Similarly, Florian is a beautiful, tall, noble young man who is not only physically gifted as a fighter, but also as an exceptional artist. (The romance that–OF COURSE–blossoms between Florian and Joana is contrived and felt, to me, pandering and inauthentic.) The other narrator, Emilia, is a younger teenage Polish girl who is beautiful as well, with her pretty blonde hair and blue eyes–as we are told many times throughout the book.
Finally, there’s the problem of Alfred. Alfred is a Nazi sailor, who spends much of his narrative composing mental letters to his beloved Hannelore, a neighbor from home. Alfred is not only a delusional young man, but he is also a Hitler worshipper who takes his charge to eradicate Jews, Poles, Yugoslavs, socialists, gays, and other enemies of the Nazi state as personal doctrine. He is also a sociopath and a peeping Tom, with a horrible skin disorder. He is, in other words, a vile caricature who is almost laughably villainous and painted as horrible in every respect–which is as frustrating to read as it is problematic. Salt to the Sea showcases a horrible maritime disaster and wartime loss of civilian life–each one of those thousands of souls aboard the Wilhelm Gustlof a real living and breathing person. The resort to simplistic caricatures–beautiful noble skilled heroes, versus the mealy-mouthed, delusional, eczema/blistered-sociopath-peeping-tom villain–is disappointing and detracts from the overall message of the book.
Ultimately, I appreciate the story, the history, and the research that went into Salt of the Sea. I deeply respect Ruta Sepetys’s desire to tell this story, and recognize its importance and its poignancy.
I only wish that the story itself and its characters could have been a bit more powerful.
Notable Quotes/Parts: Chapter 1:
Guilt is a hunter.
My conscience mocked me, picking fights like a petulant child.
It’s all your fault, the voice whispered.
I quickened my pace and caught up with our small group. The Germans would march us off the field road if they found us. Roads were reserved for the military. Evacuation orders hadn’t been issued and anyone fleeing East Prussia was branded a deserter. But what did that matter? I became a deserter four years ago, when I fled from Lithuania.
I had left in 1941. What was happening at home? Were the dreadful things whispered in the streets true?
We approached a mound on the side of the road. The small boy in front of me whimpered and pointed. He had joined us two days prior, just wandered out of the forest alone and quietly began following us.
“Hello, little one. How old are you?” I had asked.
“Six,” he replied.
“Who are you traveling with?”
He paused and dropped his head. “My Omi.”
I turned toward the woods to see if his grandmother had emerged. “Where is your Omi now?” I asked.
The wandering boy looked up at me, his pale eyes wide. “She didn’t wake up.”
So the little boy traveled with us, often drifting just slightly ahead or behind. And now he stood, pointing to a flap of dark wool beneath a meringue of snow.
I waved the group onward and when everyone advanced I ran to the snow-covered heap. The wind lifted a layer of icy flakes revealing the dead blue face of a woman, probably in her twenties. Her mouth and eyes were hinged open, fixed in fear. I dug through her iced pockets, but they had already been picked. In the lining of her jacket I found her identification papers. I stuffed them in my coat to pass on to the Red Cross and dragged her body off the road and into the field. She was dead, frozen solid, but the thought of tanks rolling over her was more than I could bear.
I ran back to the road and our group. The wandering boy stood in the center of the path, snow falling all around him.
“She didn’t wake up either?” he asked quietly.
I shook my head and took his mittened hand in mine.
And then we both heard it in the distance.
You can read the full excerpt online here.
Rating: 6 – Good, recommended with reservations
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