Between the Pages | January

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

If you’re anything like me, historical fiction isn’t something you probably read often. The name of the genre itself is a contradiction and can often seem dry, cliché or simply uninteresting. However, I’ve lately been discovering the power historical fiction holds and how it’s one of the best ways to gain knowledge and become emotionally connected to the past. I’ve been fascinated with World War II; the atrocities that took place, the horrors humanity is capable of and the utter devastation it left all less than a hundred years ago. Among the historical fiction pieces I’ve read concerning World War II, Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys stands above the rest.   

“War is catastrophe. It breaks families in irretrievable pieces. But those who are gone are not necessarily lost.”

Imagine East Prussia at the end of World War II in 1945 in the dead of winter. The Nazi Reich is crumbling, the Soviets are begin to advance, and hundreds of thousands are fleeing for their lives. The story is told through four independent voices that become woven together as their lives intersect and history unfolds. Joana is a young Lithuanian nurse who meets a sweet and pregnant Polish girl named Emilia and a Prussian called Florian who’s on the run with a secret. All three encounter Alfred, a proud and zealous Nazi solider, as they board a ship trying to escape the Soviets. The story is wrought with danger, horrors and hunger, yet exudes poetry, love and hope as well. The climax comes as readers witness the attack and sinking of Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea, the single most disastrous shipwreck in history. Over 9,000 perished on January 30, 1945 when Soviet submarines brought down the German ship holding thousands of refugees, half of them children. Little is known about the sinking and even less is remembered by history. Salt to the Sea pays homage to those who perished in the freezing waters in their quest for freedom.

“I wept because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”

Sepetys is an author that draws you in on the first page. Her writing style is poetic and peppered with flairs of imaginary that takes the unimaginable scenes of war and paints them before your eyes. You can almost feel the crunch of the snow beneath your shoes, taste the potatoes and smell the strong sent of the Baltic. Her characters are strong and distinct, and the short chapters are told in a first-person perspective, rotating between the four characters, so readers are involved in both the thought-process and outward actions of each character. It creates a very intimate atmosphere between the reader and the book. The story itself is very gripping and emotional, as each of the characters have different worldviews and thoughts that culminate together to create a book that’s difficult to put down.      

“What had human beings become? Did war make us evil or just activate an evil already lurking within us?”

Something I continually grapple with is the question of, “How can human beings treat each other like this? What lie is believed in someone’s soul that says its right to behave this way towards anyone – whether animal, man or child?” While the goal of the book certainly isn’t aimed at answering this question, Sepetys brings hope as her characters show kindness, demonstrate loyalty and sacrifice and fall in love, even in the midst of suffering. We know that evil exists in man, this is easily seen on every news channel and in every history book, yet there is courage and goodness also. And that is a very encouraging thought.   

“Just when you think this war has taken everything you loved, you meet someone and realize that somehow you still have more to give.”

I highly recommend Salt to the Sea. It gave me both historical knowledge and emotional awareness about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff while being gripped by the story itself. I finished the book with a sense of loss for all those who had died, as well a hope for the future, that we would not be so foolish to make the same mistakes as our forefathers if we truly choose to love.

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