Review: ‘Salt to the Sea’ by Ruta Sepetys

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Salt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys, (Philomel Books: February 2016), 400pp, young adult

Between January and May, 1945, Germany evacuated two million people from the advancing Soviet army in the Polish and East Prussian corridors via Operation Hannibal, the largest sea evacuation in modern history. Over 25,000 of them died in the Baltic Sea when 158 of the estimated one thousand merchant vessels were lost, many to enemy fire.

Among the lost were 9,400 of the German, East Prussian, Lithuanian, Latvian and Polish refugees on board the Wilhelm Gustloff that was sunk at 9:15 p.m. January 30th by three torpedoes from Soviet Submarine S-13 at 55°04′22″N 17°25′17″E, nineteen miles off the Polish shore.

salttoseaRuta Sepetys’ superb young adult novel traces the flight of Joana (Lithuanian), Florian (Prussian), Emilia (Polish) and Alfred (German) from the advancing Soviet army. Alfred is a sailor sent to the port of Gotenhafen for duty on board the Wilhelm Gustloff to help evacuate those escaping from the Soviet advance. Joana, Florian, and Emilia have a more difficult trek to Gotenhafen because they are also running from the German army.

The story is told in one-to-three-page chapters from the viewpoints of the four major characters. By the end of the novel, readers know each of these characters like family for they will have heard an unforgettable story of brutality, death, guilt, fate, shame and fear from every angle that matters.

Joana is a compassionate nurse, Emilia is a pregnant teenager, Florian is a young man with secrets, and Alfred wants to receive a medal for small, self-important deeds. And then there are Eva, who is tall and gruff; Heinz, a cobbler who knows people by their shoes; Ingrid, a blind girl who sees better than many, and the other seemingly doomed but hopeful souls along the way.

As they walk through the snow, Joana thinks: We trudged farther down the narrow road. Fifteen refugees. The sun had finally surrendered, and the temperature followed. A blind girl ahead of me, Ingrid, held a rope tethered to a horse-drawn cart. I had my sight, but we shared a handicap: we both walked into a dark corridor of combat, with no view of what lay ahead. Perhaps her lost vision was a gift. The blind girl could hear and smell things the rest of us couldn’t.

Sepetys’ great success with this novel comes from many factors over and above her research. The story, including the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, is told in pointed, straightforward, often graphic language with well-chosen details and no authorial editorializing or sentimentality. If the refugees reach the ships in Gotenhafen, they may not be given a boarding pass: the Germans can easily find reasons for and against each of the characters. And, the subplot of secrets ultimately linking Joana, Florian and Alfred adds tension.

It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect story about the tragedy of civilians in wartime or a better historical introduction to the plight of the Lithuanian, Prussian, Polish and German refugees caught between the opposing, but equally brutal World War II regimes of Hitler and Stalin.

Salt to the Sea is the novel no reader will forget.

–Malcolm

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