In the last days of WWII while Hitler is holed up in his bunker and the Russians sweep through Germany leaving devastation in their wake, there is one last hope, and it’s moored in the waters next to a frozen harbour. ‘Salt to the Sea’ tales the story of four young people whose lives have been decimated by war as they head towards the boat, in a bid to escape the escalating violence and outrun their personal demons that hunt them.
Ruta Sepetys ‘Salt to the Sea’ is a triumph, told by multiple the perspectives of four young people, all in first person, all with distinct unique voices that effortlessly fit together to drive the plot forward, cranking up the suspense page by page as each of the secrets that hunt them get ever closer and their fates intertwine.
‘Salt to the Sea’ follows Joana a Lithuanian surgeon’s assistant who is heading for the coast with a rag-tag bunch of refugees of which she is fiercely protective of. Florian a young German whose personal mission to extract revenge against his boss and the Führer. Emilia, a polish girl tormented by shame who is venerable and courageous as she heads towards the very people who persecuted her county in an effort to get her and her precious cargo to safety. Then Alfred, a Nazi solider preparing the Wilheim Gustloff for its voyage, whose head is full of desires of heroics and delusions of grandeur.
The four protagonists gradually meet and with each interaction their fate is cemented as the endure all the atrocities that the war can hurl at them, until finally they are all aboard the ill-fated Wilheim Gustloff that sets off across the frozen waters, massively over capacity with too few lifeboats.
When disaster strikes all four’s true colours shine; an unlikely hero sacrifices themself, another exposes their dark nature, and the others need to make split second decisions that will define their lives. In the moments when the Wilheim Gustloff is dragged down to its watery grave all four have to face their hunter’s and greet their fate.
Salt to the Sea is a beautiful book which highlights the aspects of war, WWII specifically that are often overlooked, (or at least in the literature that adorns the shelves in schools and libraries in the UK anyway), that the war effected more than just those in concentration camps, the allied soldiers and children who were evacuated to the country. It illustrates that war has many casualties, that many innocent civilians from war torn Europe including Germany.
Within Salt to the Sea, Ruta expands ones understanding by showing the brutality and all-encompassing nature of war. It is a read that will bring tears, yet along with the sadness, it celebrates the humanity of individuals, showing that despite desperate circumstances people have the capacities to do great things to help on another, heroics that are lost in the magnitude of conflict.