Review: Salt To The Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Guilt is a hunter.
1945, WWII is heading towards its bitter end, and thousands flee from the oncoming Russian army through German occupied Europe. As the evacuation progresses, the paths of four young people, a Lithuanian, a Pole, a Prussian, and a German, are becoming entwined. All four have a secret. And all four are heading towards the Wilhelm Gustloff, and the greatest disaster in maritime history.

For some strange reason, the history curriculum, at least during my time at school, seemed to be a big fan of the World Wars, the Tudors, and not much else. As a result, these are the periods of history that I just don't have much enthusiasm for reading about. The market, and my brain, are so saturated by them that I would much rather read and learn about almost any other time. Unless of course, there is something different about the story being told, a new perspective or aspect that isn't so widely talked about. This is an example of that.

I've not read Sepetys other popular book, Between Shades Of Grey, I have heard excellent things about it, it just didn't strike my fancy too much, but as soon as I heard about Salt To The Sea, released earlier this year, I knew that I wanted to read it. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is a fascinating, devastating, and all but unknown event, and my interest was sparked.

Everyone knows about the Titanic, its sinking and the enormous cost in human life (just over 1,500 perished) is infamous, my mother is certainly not alone in having a life-long fascination with the doomed ship. To a lesser extent the same is true of the Lusitania, a British ocean-liner sunk by the Germans during WWI with a terrible death count almost as high (1,198). But the death-toll of the Wilhelm Gustloff makes both of the far more famous sinkings seem like a drop in the ocean, it is estimated that the lives lost from this single ship number at more than 9,000.

This wonderful YA novel is built around that tragic event.

Rather beautifully written, this was simple but deftly done, painting a vivid picture of the frozen landscape and the desperate rush toward potential safety. Though most of the story is just one long trek with a smattering of backstory, not once was I anything but eager to turn the page. We switch rapidly between four characters, changing the point of view with each successive chapter, each only a couple of pages long or less, creating a very impactful sense of immediacy, especially as we reach the disaster we know is coming.

The four point of view characters are pleasingly varied, while we most often see the perspectives of Germans and Jews in WWII fiction, here we have four young people, each of a different nationality and experience of the war and life under the Nazi regime, providing vastly different motivations and perspectives. We hear from Joana, a Lithuanian nurse haunted by guilt; Emilia, a fifteen year old Polish girl running from a memory she can't bear; Florian, a young Prussian hell-bent on revenge; and Alfred, a young man in the German navy, consumed with self-importance and belief in the Nazi ideal.

Even though we cycle rapidly through the characters, all four felt fleshed out and real, each with a past and a secret that I wanted to discover, and I enjoyed reading about them all, even the rather thoroughly unpleasant Alfred who was far from likable. And it wasn't only the main four that I grew attached to, the others journeying with Joana were an interesting bunch too, the wandering boy and the shoemaker were a definite highlight, they always managed to raise a smile in the bleakness, and it was very interesting to have a blind character in a setting where this could easily be a death sentence.

Considering how short a time we spent with each of them, I grew very attached and was invested in all of their fates, I both wanted them to reach their goal and wanted them to fail, hoping to somehow save them from the fate of so many who boarded the ship. Knowing the inevitable destination of our characters made for an interesting reading experience. Stories set in this period usually have a general feeling of foreboding, but here it is a specific tragedy we're moving towards. We know from every description of the book where they're heading, we just don't know how they'll get there, where they've been, or what each of their ends will be. Very much driven by character rather than plot, it's these unknowns that make things compelling.

This story is, of course, not all sunshine and daisies. There is real horror to be found within, though it never becomes gratuitous or explicit. War is not a pleasant thing, and Sepetys does not shy away from this fact, even though we are far from the battlefields and trenches. Horrible things happen, to our characters and to those we never knew, not everyone will have a happy ending and not everyone will even make it to the end. Whether it is a frozen body at the side of the road or an unknown horror lurking in an empty house, the reality and brutality of war is never far away. But thankfully neither is a glimmer of beauty and innocence and hope; in a pink woolen hat, a butterfly, or a one-eared stuffed rabbit.

This book is well worth a read. If you are already a fan of WWII historical fiction you'll of course want to snap this up, but even if like me you've got a bit of a reluctance, I'd recommend giving it a shot. Beautifully written, wonderfully fast-paced, emotional but not depressing, with just a tiny smattering of romance, and offering a look at an often overlooked part of the period, this is definitely one to check out.

The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is the greatest maritime disaster in history.
Thousands of people lost their lives, many of them children.
And it is about time that we remembered them.

Trigger Warnings: Rape, Suicide, War.

Highly Recommended 

Read: 26/8/16
Source: Library

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