I always appreciate historical fiction that covers an event that I should be aware of. Salt to the Sea is about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German transport ship carrying 10,000 German military and refugees from Germany and surrounding countries. Over 9,000 people died after the ship was hit by missiles from a Russian submarine in the Baltic Sea in January, 1945.
This book is categorized as young adult fiction, although it didn’t read as “young adult” to me, and the main characters were adults, except Emilia who is sixteen. The story is told from four perspectives. Emilia is a Polish refugee, fleeing from the devastation of her town by the Russians. Joana is a nurse/medical student who is trying to get as many refugees on the ship as possible. Florian is a Prussian who’s on the run from Nazi service after becoming drafted to help steal fine art. And Alfred is a devout Nazi follower and a sailor on the ship.
This was an interesting look at World War II because few people write historical fiction from the perspective of Germans who are not Jews or prisoners or spies. It was also interesting to me to see the perspective of Germans as refugees rather than as invaders. Which is not to say that the Nazis are sympathetic in this novel – far from it – but they are terrified (and rightly so) of the approaching Russians.
Sepetys incorporates a lot of historical detail about the ship and the Nazis, including the mysterious Amber Room. I also appreciated that my copy of the book ended with a lot of factual information, including maps and interviews with survivors and a diver who explored the wreckage.
I didn’t always love Sepetys’ use of really short chapters and very frequent perspective shifts. (I should say that my book club disagreed and loved the short chapters, which do keep the story moving.) I think if you’re going to write from different characters’ perspectives, it helps to give the reader more time with each one. Except for Alfred, who we heard from plenty. I had mixed feelings about his character. On the one hand, I felt Sepetys did a nice job speaking through the viewpoint of a really loathsome person – that’s not an easy thing for a writer to do. On the other hand I’m not sure he’s ever much more than a caricature.
My husband pointed out that this ship would have been carrying mostly Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. That may be true, but historical record shows that of the 10,000 people on the ship, most were civilians and half were children, so it kind of doesn’t matter. It’s interesting to look at a huge disaster of this kind (the largest maritime disaster ever, with many more deaths than the Titanic) and realize that you’re feeling conflicted about which side was steering the ship. But then the Germans are the villains in this story, and they treated the Russians savagely, so now that they are losing and the Russians are coming for them, it’s hard to feel too bad for them. But I do feel bad for the innocents they put in this position.
My book club talked about how hard this book was to read and how devastating it was. Which is true; but maybe because I’ve read a lot of World War II fiction, I felt Sepetys did a nice job of conveying how horrible a time it was, while at the same time shielding the reader from explicit violence. It’s a thoughtful, well-written book about an event most of us know nothing about.