Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
“Guilt is a hunter.
Fate is a hunter.
Shame is a hunter.
Fear is a hunter.”
In the winter of 1945, four people from very different backgrounds make their way to the Baltic Sea in the midst of the Soviet advance, hoping to gain admission to the Wilhelm Gustloff, a refugee ship promising safety and escape. Each person has their own story, their own secrets, and their own tragedies to overcome. This work of fiction is based on very real and previously little-known events. Based on the single greatest maritime disaster and one of the many hidden tragedies of World War 2, this is a beautiful tale of love, hope, and sacrifice.
This Book has emotionally wrecked me! I had such a hard time wording a coherent review just because I felt so completely raw and emotional after finishing this beautifully tragic story based on very true events. Historical fiction is probably my favorite genre to read and I’ve read quite a few novels that address WW2 and the casualties during the war. However, I had never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff before reading this novel. Ruta Sepetys’ family were Lithuanian refugees fleeing the death and destruction of Stalin during WW2. Unlike many historical fiction books which focus on the Jewish/Polish people fleeing from the Nazis, Sepetys’ work also includes and highlights the plight of the Lithuanian people and their flight from the Soviets.
“Snow was falling, making everything appear fresh. The white snow covered the dark truth. Like a pressed white linen over a scarred table, a crisp clean sheet over a stained mattress.”
Salt to the Sea follows the perspective of 4 different people, changing narration with each chapter. Joana is a Lithuanian refugee fleeing her homeland, hoping to reunite with her family. Interestingly enough, she is also the quickly mentioned cousin of Lina, the female protagonist from Sepetys’ other novel, Between Shades of Gray. (But don’t worry…even though a small part of their stories overlap, you don’t have to read one book to understand the other. Although….I also HIGHLY recommend you read Between Shades of Gray.) Florian is a young Prussian man running with his own secrets. Emelia is Polish girl, hiding herself as a Latvian woman. Alfred is a German Nazi seaman working aboard the Wilhelm Gustfloff. All four people’s lives, combined with a few others, converge to tell one of the most beautifully tragic stories I have ever read.
“Just when you think war has taken everything you love, you meet someone and realize that somehow you still have more to give.”
One of the many reasons I love reading historical fiction is because these types of books keep the people & stories of history from being forgotten and lost forever. One of the very last things that Sepety’s writes in her “Author’s Notes” section at the end, perfectly sums up my feeling on the subject:
“History divided us, but through reading we can be united in story, study, and remembrance. Books join us together as a global reading community, but more important, a global human community striving to learn from the past.”
I simply cannot say enough great things about this novel and just how much I loved it. Before this novel, I was a huge fan of Ruta Sepetys… Between Shades of Gray is one of my all time favorite books, that I seem to recommend to everyone. Her second novel, Out of the Easy, was also fantastic and actually made it to my top reads for 2015 here. Salt to the Sea has, without question, secured a place in some of my favorite books of all time. I finished it in just over 24 hours because I could not stop reading about all of these wonderfully written characters. The chapters are rather short, so it’s a quick read. But the heavy nature of the book left me having to take sporadic breaks and/or rereading some sections over again to fully appreciate and absorb the story.
My review: 5/5 stars. I’d give it 6 stars if I could, I loved it that much.