Set during the Second World War, Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys is an emotional, heartwarming story following thousands of refugees in East Prussia trying to escape to freedom on the Wilhelm Gustloff ship. The story of our main characters, Joana (a Lithuanian nurse), Emilia (a young Polish girl), Florian (a Prussian solider), and Alfred (a German sailor) all intertwine in what can be described as an even more devastating Titanic story.
This book, despite the historical fiction genre being outside of my comfort zone, was a joy to read. The chapters were incredibly short which I liked due to the fact that it allowed me to fly through the novel; there were many times in which I told myself “just one more chapter” but I ended up reading multiple. Another aspect which made this a quick read was the suspense surrounding the characters. This story is told through 4 different perspectives, and each of them has secrets which were hinted at but were not explained until later on. Sepetys sure knows how to keep a reader intrigued.
Out of the 4 perspectives, I thoroughly loved 3 of them. Joana is one of the most caring and sensible characters I have ever read. As a nurse you’d expect these traits, but her kindness and concern for others goes above and beyond that of a health professional wanting the best for her patients – she’s with them 24/7 and sees them as family. Joana, in my opinion, is what holds her group of travellers together. She is the one constantly boosting the morale. Despite all of the tough hardships she and the others around her are going through, she takes a positive and intellectual approach to everything which I admire. My heart broke for Emilia; a girl too young to have seen and be apart of all the horrors she has been exposed to. Piecing together her story throughout the novel was almost frustrating because the moment I thought I had sussed her out, a new detail and mystery was revealed. But even though she has enough on her own plate, she too is also such a kind-hearted character to the others. Florian is a confusing one, but at the end of the day has a heart of gold. You never really know what his motives are, but this kept him an interesting character to read about, and he ultimately became my favourite of the book. Other characters who had smaller roles in this story, the shoe poet and the wandering boy just to name a couple, were also a delight to read. They gave depth to this story and offered different circumstances to consider.
The 4th perspective that is given in this novel is Alfred, and every time I came upon one of his chapters I had to refrain from rolling my eyes. He is not a likeable character; a brainwashed Nazi who believes he is superior to everyone else. But despite not being able to sympathise nor understand his emotions and beliefs, it was a fascinating viewpoint to include. Sepetys wrote him to be unlikable, and she did a great job, especially regarding how he tries to be innocent and liked, however all it does is show how manipulative he really is.
I went into this novel knowing that it would be intense and heart-wrenching like I assume most historical fictions are, but being prepared did not falter the emotions I felt in response to the happenings in this book. The dark and eerie descriptions of the various settings present really complimented the story. Everything was raw and nothing about the brutality of the war was sugarcoated.
My only complaint is that I found the ending of the novel, the letter, to be confusing. I re-read it multiple times and despite having a rough grasp of what it was saying, it was not explicit enough. However a quick google search solved this, and the answer melted my heart. I honestly don’t blame the author for this as it was a genius way to end the novel, but a little more clarification would have been nice.
All in all I fell in love with this story and I am anticipating reading Ruta Sepetys other work. This is a 5 star book which also has me looking forward to exploring more of the historical fiction genre.