“What a group we were. A pregnant girl in love, a kindly shoemaker, an orphan boy, a blind girl and a giantess who complained that everyone was in her way when she herself took up the most room. And me, a lonely girl who missed her family and begged for a second chance.”
Blurb: 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.”
Historial fiction is not a genre I actively reach for. In fact, when I think about others I’ve read, the only one that springs to mind is The Book Thief. But like the way I find most of my books, it’s talked about a lot in the community. So when I came across in on the shelf at my library, I scooped it up and went on my way.
I used to love learning about history when I was younger and it’s baffling that this is the first time I’ve heard about the Whilhelm Gustloff which is one of the worst wartime ship disasters. It’s total loss is greater than the Titanic and Lusitana tragedies combined. The event seems to have become a minor footnote amongst everything else that took place during World War II so I’m glad this book exists as a way to counteract that.
Salt To The Sea is told through four different perspectives: Florian who is fleeing from his dark deeds, Joana who is a nurse, Emilia who is a young pregnant girl, and Alfred who is a German solider. Each of these points of view worked perfectly in showing the realities of war and showcasing different stories of civilians just trying to make it out alive. When it comes to stories of war, I feel like it’s too easy to forget the innocent people trapped in the middle. Out of the four characters the reader follows directly, Alfred was the most interesting as he was working for Hitler. He was determined to prove his worth, earn a medal, and genuinely believed that he was on the right side of history.
The book is incredibly brutal. When the plot reaches its climax there is no escape from the death and graphic descriptions of people jumping from the ship in a desperate attempt to survive, no way to get past the images of bodies floating in water. But to downplay those elements would do this book, and history, a massive disservice. While the characters themselves are fictionalised and inspired by Ruta sepetys research, knowing that this tragedy really happened was almost impossible to fathom.
The only real grip I had with this book is the chapters. The reader is following each character for three pages at most before another one steps up which makes it really hard to care entirely for the characters or really get a full sense of who they are.
Salt To The Sea is heart wrenching but shines a light on an important, forgotten part of history.
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