Salt to the Sea tells of the real-world tragedy that swept up and down the Baltic States from Lithuania to Estonia as Hitler’s machine began to crumble under Stallin’s Red Army. Four young lives are impacted in her tale, fleeing the Russian invading force, each with their own mystery that unveils in careful precision as they stumble toward Gotenhafen and refuge upon the repurposed cruise ship: the Wilhem Gustloff.
Sepetys’s prose is spare and exacting, cutting like a knife, weaving four storylines slowly together until the bitter, climactic end. Despite the circumstances, she builds a sweet and genuine romance and each character’s mystery unfolds with each piece adding and building upon the rest.
There is Emilia – spoiled innocence with a haunted past; Florian – desperate, clever, seeking a daring retribution; Joanna – determined to make amends; and Alfred - delusional, a day dreamer, eager to be the best German soldier he can be (even if he can not.)
Just as salvation seems eminent, the long road over, dear friends lost, while new ones cling together, their refuge is targeted by a Russian sub and 9,000 perish in the worst maritime disaster of modern times. But the story does not end as you expect, and Sepetys once again proves her mettle with a conclusion that is poignant, heart-wrenching, and yet still rewarding.
Rare is it to want to read a book again—especially right after—but this was one of those oddities. And this from a guy sunk eyeball deep in the lore of fantasy and the cautionary wonder of sci-fi. Go figure.
As a novel, Salt to the Sea is superb; as a piece of history, slid under the magnifying glass, it is a telling reminder that in war, there are no winners and the true losses happen between the lines of war.
As conflicts boil throughout the world, as one country goes to fight some evil for the “greater good”, there are real people stuck in the middle, suffering. It is a point to remember.
February 2016 | Penguin Group