Trigger Warning: This novel and review discuss the following: illness, war, war crimes, rape, assault, drowning, death.
Goodreads Rating: 5 Stars
I picked up a copy of Salt to the Sea at a library sale after hearing that if I liked historical fiction, then it was a must read. As a huge historical fiction fan and a World War II fan I was intrigued enough to get and keep the copy, and I am so glad I did because it is wonderful.
The novel follows four main characters. The first is a young woman named Joana, who was training to become a surgeon before her mother sent her away to Germany, in the hopes that she will be accepted as a citizen and therefore safer than she was in her home country of Lithuania. She’s feisty, independent, and taking care of those suffering around her comes naturally. She has befriended a few on their journey south, including: a man dubbed The Shoe Poet, an older gentleman cobbler who talks about shoes as if they’re poetry; a small young boy whose mother died on the journey who the Poet has taken under his wing; and a older, gruff woman they call Sorry Ada, who often apologizes before she states something blunt or rude.
The next character is a young man named Florian, a Prussian who also happens to be heading to Germany. Unlike Joana, he is trying to make as little contact as possible with those around him or anyone he comes upon, but he makes an exception when he stops a Red Army soldier from victimizing a young girl, named Emilia. She is no older than 16, and reminds Florian of his sister. He soon finds out that she follows him, her hero, and when they meet Joana, it is quickly revealed that Emilia is pregnant. Joana plans to take care of her and they form a friendship, but Florian is determined to remain distant, as he’s carrying a secret while on the run.
Emilia becomes the third character viewpoint, and this allows readers to gain her backstory- and that she too has a secret to hide. Emilia was sent away by her father, the only family she had left, to another family who lived in the country in the hopes they’d protect her. Although the farmer and his son treated her mostly with respect, the farmer’s wife despised Emilia’s Polish roots, sympathizing with the Nazis, and ended up handing her over to the soldiers. Since then, she had been on the run.
As the three characters above are running for their lives, hoping to board a ship- the Wilhelm Gustloff– they meet the fourth character, whom readers have been having to endure for a good portion of the book. His name is Albert, a Nazi sympathizer who has a hero complex. He thinks he’s due more respect than he’s earned, and wants to be much more important than he actually is. As a peon aboard the Gustloff, he has been cleaning toilets and scrubbing the decks- if he’s not hiding from his superiors and writing illustrious tales of his importance to his girlfriend. When Florian meets Albert, he knows that Albert will do anything if promised a reward- which gives the others a chance at finally fleeing the war torn area. Yet, when the Gustloff is hit by a Soviet submarine, the real heroes of this story present themselves. What will happen to our core four?
Salt to the Sea is good sized at 400+ pages, but the four characters pull you in from each perspective, which keeps the pages turning in rapid succession. Sepetys’ writing is fantastic. There’s so much emotion in her writing, her character development is fantastic, her usage of repetition and onomatopoeia aid in connecting the multiple POVs, and her plot twists had me screaming at the pages. I never knew about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, so I found that both fascinating and devastating, and was completely transfixed on what would happen to these strong characters that I had grown so fond of.
In the end, I too would consider Salt to the Sea a must read historical fiction, and despite the heartbreak, I’d recommend it to everyone.
TL/DR: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys is a historical fiction novel focusing on four characters during the sinking of the Wilhekm Gustloff in 1945, during the end of World War II.
Read it? Yes, absolutely.
Recommend it? Yes, pretty much to everyone, though do mind the trigger warning. This book isn’t for the lighthearted.
Buy it? YES.
If you liked this novel or review, check out these similar reads:
- The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons
- All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
- Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly