Format: Hardcover, 393 pages
Release Date: February 2, 2016
Publisher: Philomel Books
Genre: YA, Historical, Fiction
Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.
Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.
World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, many with something to hide. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer to safety.
As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.
Yet not all promises can be kept.
“Your daughter, your sister. She is salt to the sea”
Author Ruta Sepetys Salt to the Sea is, in my humble opinion, one of the best historical fiction novels of 2016. Salt to the Sea has four main characters: Joana, Florian, Emilia, & Alfred. Each of these characters are from four different homelands: Joana (Lithuania), Florian (Prussia) Emilia (Poland), and Alfred (Germany). Each character has a story to tell, and a goals that they hope to achieve. Each will have to face one of the more horrific events of World War II that was covered up and buried until now.
This is a story that alternates between the main characters, while also having short, concise chapters that make Salt to the Sea a well paced, and quick read for anyone who loves Historical fiction. Let's do a breakdown of each of the four characters:
For Joana, guilt is the hunter, and she is its hostage. She fled from Lithuania in 1941 leaving her family behind. Because of her mother's heritage, she was allowed to repatriate to Germany. She worked as a surgeon's assistant before fleeing. She meets up with a group of refugees who are all worried about being caught up in the Russian's armies advancement which has proven they will do anything to anyone standing in their way. Joana is my favorite character. She's older, she stronger, she's got skills that are useful, and she doesn't fight her own label of being a murderer. I have not read Between Shades of Grey, but have been told that Joana's cousin Lina mentioned in this book, is the key character in Grey.
Florian Beck believes fate is a hunter, with its barrel pressed against his forehead. He's on the run with valuable information about what the Germans are actually doing with the treasures they continue to steal from Jews, Poles, and anyone else they've considered second class to their white supremacist agenda. Treasure that will soon fall into Soviet hands. Florian is perhaps the most conflicted character because he really needs to get away from not only the Russian's, but his former boss as well. His eventual realization that he needs those like Joana, & Emilia create a more realistic story.
Emilia at 15 is the youngest of the four, and the one that I believe will break your heart into little bitty pieces. She's seen so much in her short life. She's had to deal with way too much thanks to the brutality of war and those who believe they are entitled to spoilage which means women and children. Emilia believes shame is the hunter, and her shame is all around her. She is shamed by what happened to her, but after being saved by Florian, she begins the long journey will eventually end up on the MV Wilhelm Gustloff.
My least favorite character is Alfred. Alfred is a racist by all indications. His hatred towards Jews is palpable. He is a character that has absolutely no redeeming value, which is why this book is so good. Alfred represents Hitler's regime in every way. He's a coward. His letters home to someone named Hannelore are rife with propaganda and lies. Alfred's interaction with Joana boarders are the stalkerish. He just can't help himself, not even when things look their darkest.
As this is my first taste of Sepetys writing, I am definitely impressed, and will thus request Between Shades of Grey from my local library. What makes this such a great story is the fact that the author went above and beyond the call of duty to research the actual events behind the sinking of Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945. Such a tragic story. 9,343 dead. 5000 of them are said to have been children of all ages. There were said to be 373 female naval auxiliaries amongst the passengers.
We all know that war is evil, and after reading this book, we should really try to look at the atrocities committed by both Germans and Russians which lead the world to this point. There are those that will ignore the horrors that the characters face in this book. I say that if we don't learn from our pasts, we will continue to repeat them forever.