Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.
Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.
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.
Inspired by the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, bestselling and award-winning author Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray) lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II. An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope.
“The sinking of the Gustloff is the largest maritime disaster, yet the world still knows nothing of it. I often wonder, will that ever change or will it remain just another secret swallowed by war?” – page 178.
I loved Salt to the Sea. The true events in this historical fiction is sadly a forgotten part of history. I am glad that Ruta wrote this novel so that people will know about the disaster and over 9,000 lives lost (5,000 were children) when the Wilhelm Gustloff sank. I love what she said in her author’s note at the end (which I encourage any reader to read before starting the story),
“When the survivors are gone we must not let the truth disappear with them. Please give them a voice.”
The multiple character POVs was well done. We got to see the war and people’s experiences through different eyes. I loved the evolution of the characters’ secrets. The introductions were brilliantly done to set the tone: Guilt/fate/shame/fear is a hunter.
The Wilhelm Gustloff sunk in under an hour and so the suspense during the sinking was fast and intense.
I am going to get into some spoilers below. You’ve been warned.
Emilia was my favorite. My heart ached for her. Anytime someone wanted her to go away she was reminded that because of Hitler’s prejudice Poles were unwanted, and I just wanted to take her in my arms to love and protect her.
I had a feeling that August was not really her boyfriend but just a coping mechanism. It was just a gut-wrenching feeling I had that the Russians soldiers raped her.
I was a bawling mess by the end of the book. I was so hoping she would survive and be reunited with her newborn daughter, but when she was back with her momma, baby brother and two best friends I knew… excuse me. I need a tissue because I am crying again.
—Florian really was Emilia’s knight. I loved the part when he helped Emilia accept her daughter. She was full of shame because she was raped but he looked at Helinka and said that she was her mother, her grandparents, and that she was Poland. While I am devastated that Emilia died, I am glad that Florian and Joana end up together to raise Helinka and Klaus, the Wandering boy.
I do wonder if Florian ever reunited with his sister Anni.
I was happy that at the very end instead of wanting the Amber Swan back Florian requested it be buried, as if he emotionally and spiritually buried his revenge long ago.
Joana, for those who have read Between Shades of Gray, is Lina’s cousin. I loved her need to help people, even if it was to a fault (She almost died to save Ingrid.) Joana should not feel guilty, for I think Stalin would have sent Lina and her family to the gulags anyway. I’d like to think that when she and Florian begin their life together after the war and immigrate to American that she becomes a doctor or nurse and he becomes an art teacher. I like the way their crush slowly developed into love.
Alfred, ugh this asshole. I’ll start with something positive. Through his point of view the reader gets to see the conditions of the Wilhelm Gustloff and we get to know the facts so that when it comes time for the rest of the characters to come aboard, we’re not clueless. Now here is the truth. Alfred is a coward and an idiot. He boasts himself as an observer but when it comes to obvious conclusions he is slow to realizing them. For this he is constantly mocked by his fellow officers. He is lazy and often is yelled at by his superiors for not doing his duty or doing it wrong. There is a reason he was only called to serve in the Nazi army very late in the war and why he is the lowest ranking officer. They were desperate.
When the ship begins to sink, he behaves like George Costanza, pushing people out of the way and stealing someone’s life jacket.
I knew the whole time Hannelore was not his girlfriend. What I did not see coming was that she was half-Jewish and he turned in her father! Though it meant death I loved Hannelore’s declaration and pride of being Jewish. F-U Alfred.
The Shoe Poet – I loved the old man and his wisdom. A good pair of shoes will take you far and the shoes do tell a story. Witnessing his death was painful, mostly because Klaus saw it too and he loved him like a grandfather. Did he forget he had the coins on him when he jumped?
Ingrid was another favorite character of mine too. I loved her insight of people though she was blind. Damn ice and damn bombs! She was so close! She made it past the first inspection. Though I wonder if her death in the ice was faster and more humane than it would have been in the Baltic Sea?
Besides the Wilhelm Gustloff, there is also a little bit about Operation Hannibal (gosh, that was a disturbing mess of an evacuation), and the mystery of the Amber Room added to the story. Ruta really does her research and gave a list of non-fiction books to learn more about the true events.
I really encourage anyone to read Salt to the Sea, even if YA or historical fiction are not your typical genre. It will capture your emotions and make you think about how history can fade away if we don’t tell the stories.
5 out 5 pink woolen hats.