Salt to the Sea
by Ruta Sepetys
Genre: YA, Historical Fiction
Length: 416 Pages
Release date: August 1, 2017
Publisher: Penguin Books
While the Titanic and Lusitania are both well-documented disasters, the single greatest tragedy in maritime history is the little-known January 30, 1945 sinking in the Baltic Sea by a Soviet submarine of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German cruise liner that was supposed to ferry wartime personnel and refugees to safety from the advancing Red Army. The ship was overcrowded with more than 10,500 passengers — the intended capacity was approximately 1,800 — and more than 9,000 people, including 5,000 children, lost their lives.
Sepetys (writer of ‘Between Shades of Gray’) crafts four fictionalized but historically accurate voices to convey the real-life tragedy. Joana, a Lithuanian with nursing experience; Florian, a Prussian soldier fleeing the Nazis with stolen treasure; and Emilia, a Polish girl close to the end of her pregnancy, converge on their escape journeys as Russian troops advance; each will eventually meet Albert, a Nazi peon with delusions of grandeur, assigned to the Gustloff decks.
“I became good at pretending. I became so good that after a while the lines blurred between my truth and fiction. And sometimes, when I did a really good job of pretending, I even fooled myself.”
What’s happening, bookworms? I’m back with another Minority Opinion Post™. This book has so many positively glowing reviews and came highly recommended by some friends of mine (shout out to my book club ladies… please don’t hate me). I went into it with high expectations and had a really lukewarm experience with this book.
Let me start with the positive. Sepetys has plenty of quotable passages and the writing is really stylistically lovely overall. There were some passages I loved that really packed a punch, like this one: “His smugness was annoying. This was the type of man who looked at a picture on the wall and instead of admiring the photo, looked at his own reflection in the glass.”
The story is technically a continuation of Between Shades of Gray (also published as Ashes in the Snow) but can be read without that background information without any confusion. There is a small overlap, but the story line and cast of characters is largely separate. That being said, I do recommend reading Between Shades of Gray before Salt to the Sea. While it’s not necessary to follow the story, certain passages which call back to the first book will inevitably have more emotional impact if the books are read in order. I love this kind of flexibility in storytelling, when readers can jump in at either book but fans get that reward of a spark of recognition that won’t be there for all readers.
That being said, let’s get into my issues with this book. The chapters are extremely short, which would not be a problem in and of itself were it not for the fact that we are hopping from one point of view character to the next with these chapters transitions. The end result was that the reading felt very choppy and somewhat shallow; I had a hard time getting invested in characters when I was only spending a few pages at a time with each of them, and they ended up feeling very flat.
Albert, the Hitler fanatic, was the most compelling of the point of view characters. Sepetys seems to have a particular skill for writing a character the reader will despise without turning them off of the book. I sped through Albert’s chapters, with a mixture of horror and barely restrained glee as I waited for what was sure to be his inevitable fate.
Despite my somewhat lukewarm response to this book as a whole, I do love that the author chose to write about this topic. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff had a death toll of around 9,000, compared to the Titanic’s death toll of just over 1,500, yet it has all but disappeared from the public consciousness. I was not familiar with these events prior to picking up this book, and one of my favorite things about historical fiction is that it can introduce us to times and events we would not have otherwise encountered, inspiring further research and learning. Sepetys handled this event with the sensitivity and respect for the real-life victims that was deserved.
Thank you for reading! What’s an overlooked historical event that you’d like to see explored more in fiction? Let’s discuss in the comments!