Set in the year 1945 this riveting historical novel by American-Lithuanian author Ruta Sepetys is a revelation of important parts of history that seem to have died with the Second World War. While the characters are fictional the historical context is very much real and it pained me deeply to have never even heard this tragic events took place.
I love historical novels in general (I myself want to become a historical novelist someday) but whenever I read one of Ruta Sepetys’ novels I am truly captivated. Besides being well researched, well written and an important topic, she truly has a way of making her stories alive. When you read her books you are there with the characters and you are living it. She gives you a true experience and you just can’t believe it is fiction. Salt to the Sea is no different. Whether you enjoy historical novels or not, this is a book you must read, simply because it is important. And having read very difficult books in history this is a fast read, it completely takes over you until the very end and does not get boring or annoying at any point.
The story is narrated through four different perspectives. Four young people with different origins and backgrounds all affected by the war in different ways. All of them hunted and haunted by tragedy, lies, secrets, fear, guilt, shame and fate. The MV Wilhelm Gustloff was the ship that promised them freedom and safety from their wretched pasts and presets. But when there is war not all promises can be kept.
Joana Vilkas: Born in Biržai, Lithuania Joana is only twenty one years old. She and her mother repatriated to Germany (her mother was of German origins) to get away from Stalin’s cruel rule and deportation to Siberia or the famous gulags. She is consumed with guilt for someone she cared about and endangered without meaning to. Joana is a studious girl and a talented nurse. She was a physician’s assistant in Isterburg (East Prussia, which was part of the Reich) until she had to flee for her life in early 1945 because the Russians were approaching. She is kind, compassionate and empathic. She has a burning desire to heal or help whoever she sees and is a hero of her own, still she feels guilty for her past and for all the people she has let down. Joana is very attractive and has had a very poor history with dating and romance. She is seeked by many but remains humble, troubled and consumed.
Florian Beck: Florian is from Tilsit, Prussia. He is of age to be enlisted in the German army but he was the apprentice of Dr. Lange, who used him to restore many important art pieces stolen from the rest of Europe by the Reich. He is a talented artist and a fantastic replicator. He is full of resent towards Dr. Lange, Hitler and Gauleiter Erich Koch (the regional Nazi party leader, and one of the most cruel war criminals) and so he intends to take revenge by stealing a mystery object. He’s on the run and very badly injured from an explosion. His mother died and they killed his father. Despite everything he is a very good person and he can’t be indifferent even if he tries. He does not let people see him smile often but when he does no one can deny he is handsome.
Emilia: Emilia is only 15 years old. She is a Polish girl from Lwów. Her mother died giving birth to her little brother (who also did not make it). She loves nature and math. She has been through a lot and is seen as an inferior “filthy pole” by the Nazis. Her father sends her to a farm up north with some family friends for her safety, but was she really safe there? Emilia finds herself running for her life and then she crosses paths with Florian who saves her from a Russian soldier. Emilia is the icon of sacrifice in this book, she gives it all for others and is selfless, she feels alone in her war stricken world and she misses her old life, but she tries to pretend everything is okay. She is so good at pretending she even fools herself with her own lies sometimes.
Adolph Frick: Adolph is a young lad from Germany. He is a late enlister of the German army because he is nothing more than a wimpy psychopath in training. He calls himself “a thinker” and likes to quote Hitler’s ideas from his book Mein Kampf. He has a profound love for the Furher and buys into the whole superior race ideology. He likes to chant a list of Hitler’s enemies. He is in the lowest rank of the navy and assigned to assist in the ship Wilhelm Gustloff in Operation Hannibal. He has unimportant jobs but he is obsessed with becoming a hero to Germany. He writes countless mental letters to Hannelore, his “adored one” from back home. But he is full of fear and resent, he has been bullied and made fun of a lot. He is not very clever, and he believes himself to be. He is very physically unfit and a very much interested in women who will only make fun of him. He reminds me a lot of Hitler himself. He just wants to feel powerful, worth it and useful and he is prepared to get rid of anyone in his path to achieving self confidence.
Heinz “the shoe poet”: this old shoemaker is a character, he’s on the run with Joana and their group. He is convinced shoes tell people’s stories and he just has an obsession with shoes in general. He is a very honest loving man. He is charismatic and caring. Everyone loves him.
Ingrid: Ingrid is a blind girl, this handicap makes her unworthy of living by Hitler’s standards. She has all her other senses sharpened and she can sense many thing others with sight can’t.
Sorry Eva: Eva is also part of the group evacuating with Joana. She has very pessimistic comments to say and always adds the word sorry in every one of them. She is her own priority. She is a bitter woman and the shoe poet describes her a blister.
Klaus: Klaus is a little boy wandering by himself, the group takes him in because he has no one. He is sweet and loves the shoemaker. He calls him Opi (Grampa) and is fascinated by him.
As for the plot I will not spoil it for you now. But my recommendation to you is: read this book. Read it if it’s the only thing you ever plan on reading. Read it if you are not a regular reader, and if you are. This is an important story, please don’t let it die.
Love, Knowledge Empress