Salt to the Sea
by Ruta Sepetys
World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, many with something to hide. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer to safety.
Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people—adults and children alike—aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.
Something I must thank this novel for is bringing the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff to my attention.
It’s crazy to me that an estimated 9,400 people died, around 5,000 of them children, when this ship sank on 30th January 1945, making it the largest loss of life in a single ship sinking in history, and yet I’d never heard of it before I came across this novel. Why? Well, because it’s a German ship, and history doesn’t like to show any sympathy towards Germany during the Second World War. It’s so much easier for us to label every single German in 1945 as a Nazi and move on, when in reality it’s important we remember that many, many German people also suffered under the Nazi regime.
Salt to the Sea follows the lives of four teenagers, three of whom are trying to reach safety and one of whom is a Nazi soldier, who ultimately end up aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff. I’d heard nothing but praise for Ruta Sepetys’ work for a long time, so I was looking forward to finally checking her out for myself.
And? And… well, sadly, I was kind of disappointed.
One of the problems I find with novels like these is that readers sometimes feel guilty for rating them less than 4 or 5 stars because it’s about the Second World War – which was essentially yesterday in the grand scheme of the world’s history – but whatever the subject matter, I need to love a book to give it a high rating and I’m sorry to say I didn’t love this one.
I mean I obviously didn’t hate it, either. 3 stars is still a good rating and this is definitely a novel I would recommend to readers who don’t read historical fiction and want to try it, and to any younger readers who are perhaps studying the Second World War at school, because I think it’d be a great introduction to this genre and to this period of history.
I find it hard to say this without sounding like a snob, but because I’ve read quite a bit of historical fiction (it’s one of my favourite genres) and because I’m already a lover of history (although admittedly I’m more into my medieval and early modern history than this period) this book just didn’t do anything new for me. It didn’t give me an absolute punch to the gut like I expected it to, and I finished this book feeling a little underwhelmed.
Again, that sounds like such a heartless thing to say about a story like this one, especially a story which includes some truly horrifying scenes; one character, for example, is a victim of gang rape, and while it isn’t described in detail it’s still absolutely horrific which, of course, it’s supposed to be. The problem for me was that I felt as though I could see Sepetys behind every narrative choice. I could see her adding in a snippet here and there to make the reader feel things, and that kind of story just doesn’t work for me.
The things that happen to some of the characters in this book are awful beyond imagination, but I didn’t get to know the characters quite as much as I wanted to and this book would have had much more of an impact on me if I’d been given more time with its characters. This novel is a very quick read, and Sepetys’ writing style is incredibly readable which, again, makes her the perfect introductory author for historical fiction newbies, but almost every chapter ended with a short. Dramatic. Sentence. And once I noticed it, it became very formulaic.
I did love Emilia – she was my favourite character of the four we follow – but she deserved better than what she got in this story. I don’t necessarily disagree with how her story ended, I just wasn’t keen on how we got there and I don’t think one of the choices Emilia made really made any sense to me. It’s hard to discuss that without going into major spoilers, though.
Joana and Florian are also easy enough to follow around, and I liked their chemistry, but the main problem for me in this book was Alfred, our token Fascist for the duration of the story.
I don’t for one second want to downplay the kind of evil bred by Fascism during the Second World War. The Nazis were all kinds of fucked up, and a lot of them were just plain evil themselves. I do think it’s a real shame, though, that our one POV character who is a Nazi fell into the trope of the ‘crazy Nazi’. Sepetys had a real chance here to explore why someone like Alfred would agree with the beliefs and ideals of the Nazi regime, and instead we got a character who didn’t feel realistic at all compared to the other three narrators. He felt like a comic book villain, and I think that’s this novel’s biggest flaw. If an author wants to make me terrified of the Nazi party within their story, then I have to be able to understand why they are the way they are. I have to be made to feel uncomfortable being in the head of this boy. Instead I wanted him to die not because he was a Fascist piece of garbage, but because he was super annoying. That’s not what I want from a Second World War novel.
I was hoping, and, to be honest, expecting, this novel to be a new favourite, and sadly it isn’t. It is incredibly readable, though, and I do think this would be a good introduction to historical fiction – especially to any readers who are intimidated by the genre.