Ruta Sepetys’s Salt to the Sea (Penguin Books 2016) was a bit of a surprise. It’s been hanging out on my TBR for several years now, but I didn’t much know what to expect when I finally picked it up. As I’ve never read Sepetys before, I’m not sure if the snapshot-style alternating narration is her typical style, but it was effective in this war novel.
The novel switches easily between four young people from four different countries all caught up in the same war. Florian is a soldier, traveling under the dead of night, his bag heavy with secrets and the evidence of deceit he is trying to outrun. As he flees, he stumbles over a Russian soldier attempting to rape Emilia. He kills the man, and the grateful young Polish girl refuses to leave his side. He is her “knight” and she doesn’t let him out of her sight despite his best attempts to leave her behind. The two join a group of refugees where they meet Joana, who is a nurse.
The group, which also includes a very tall woman, a blind woman, a young orphan, and an old shoemaker decide to stay together as they make their way to the sea. Without discussion, they wrap the young Polish girl into their midst, helping hide her identity and giving her papers belonging to a dead girl.
Most of them reach the sea. There, they join an ever growing and desperate group seeking passage aboard several ships, including the Wilhelm Gustloff. Alfred is stationed aboard the ship. Alfred has delusions of grandeur and a false sense of importance that make him dangerous but also easy to manipulate. If Florian can fool him, they all might just make it to safety.
But no one knew the Soviet navy waited with torpedoes marked just for them. What transpired became the deadliest disaster at sea, a disaster history seems to have forgotten.
In Florian, Joana, Emilia, and Alfred, Sepetys gives voice to the thousands of people who were aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff. It’s a well-done historical novel that doesn’t lose the history in favor of a fictional plot or a half-assed romance. At its heart, it’s a war novel about the choices we make when our feet are to the fire.
Read this book.