TITLE: Salt to the Sea
AUTHOR: Ruth Sepetys
PUBLISHER: Philomel Books
RELEASE DATE: February 2, 2016
GENRE: Young Adult, Historical Fiction
PAGE COUNT: 393
I tend to avoid the historical fiction genre because it’s never really gripped me in the past. However, Salt to the Sea is distinct from other historical novels I’ve read, using conventions of contemporary YA fiction such as fast pace and multiple first person points of view. With none of the verbosity and foot-dragging I used to associate with historical fiction, it is an engrossing quick read.
Plot & Point of View
Set in Germany in the Winter of 1945, Salt to the Sea is told from the first person perspectives of four young adults affected by war: Joana is a Lithuanian nurse, wracked with survivor’s guilt; Florian is a Prussian restoration artist, hiding a dangerous secret; Emilia is a Polish girl, disguised as a Latvian to pass under the noses of the German officials; Alfred is a German seaman onboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, responsible for evacuating thousands of refugees. Battling their own griefs and hopes in private, our four narrators are bound to each other by the worst disaster in maritime history: the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.
The Wilhelm Gustloff was pregnant with lost souls conceived of war. They would crowd into her belly and she would give birth to their freedom. But did anyone realise? The ship was christened for a man, Wilhelm Gustloff. My father had told me about him. He had been the leader of the Nazi Party in Switzerland. He was murdered. This ship was born of death – page 218
The characters’ nationalities give us four unique perspectives of the same event. War impacts them all differently, and their method of processing their grief and facing their uncertain future reveals a lot about them as individuals. Knowing that the plot was heading for the catastrophic sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, I was aware that any one of their stories could be cut short at any time, leaving all the threads of their personal arc dangling. This fact kept me on tenterhooks.
I wanted her to know not only Poland, but my Poland … There were no ghettos, no armbands. I often fell asleep to a breeze floating through my open window. It’s true. It was like that once – page 268
Point of view switches to a different narrator every chapter. The very short chapters, often ending on a cliffhanger, sustain the tense suspense and pace. I found it easy to devour half the book in one sitting because I kept reasoning, “just one more chapter before bed”. This structure kept me hooked, and made the story feel fresh and immediate.
Cast of Characters
At first, I didn’t always recognise the differences between the characters’ voices (excluding Alfred’s point of view, delivered mainly through letters to the woman he left behind). Since P.o.V. jumps around a lot, I had to backtrack a couple of times to avoid muddling up the characters. Considering the chapters are so short and fast-paced, double-checking the details only took me out of my immersion for a few seconds.
Joana is my favourite character, with Florian coming in close second. Joana’s level head and steel stomach make her a strong leader and easily the most empathetic character. When romantic tension builds between her and Florian, I was all for it. I felt that Florian’s plotline had more backbone and drive than any other characters’, and I could imagine it continuing after the book ended. I also have a soft spot for secondary characters Heinz, the elderly shoe poet, and Klaus, the wandering boy. These characters were heartwarming and the fact that they are different ages to the narrators means we get to see more scope of the war’s impact.
How closely would they inspect our papers? Could they assess refugees like I diagnosed patients? If so, they’d not the following about me: Homesick. Exhausted. Full of regret – page 118
Compared to Joana and Florian, Emilia and Alfred felt like short-term characters, or “filler” characters. Emilia is a timid, shame-burdened girl lacking the instinct to fend for herself. Despite having a distinct voice, Alfred is a self-important coward whose chapters I found repulsive to read because of his sense of racial supremacy. Neither Emilia nor Alfred felt like strong enough characters for me to imagine them having lives beyond the pages of this book. I also didn’t feel intrigued to learn more about them, especially since my first impression of them didn’t develop much over the course of the plot. I wonder if I would have connected more to the story if it were told by only two narrators, Joana and Florian. Although I enjoyed this book, I didn’t experience the story to be very emotionally impactful because my emotional investment was spread too thinly over too many characters.
Salt to the Sea explores a little-known disaster from several angles, offering insight through fresh and fast-paced storytelling that will appeal to young readers who enjoy split narratives. While there are some good characters and ideas here, I don’t believe the four narrators were equally developed or empathetic. That said, I would strongly recommend this book to middle grade or young adult lovers of historical fiction.