Salt to the Sea is a book about a group of refugees fleeing from the Eastern Front away from the Soviet Army. There are four main characters. Florian a Prussian art restoration apprentice who has a secret. Joana, a Lithuanian nursing student who is haunted by past choices. Emilia, a Polish girl who has had everything in her life, ripped away by the war. And Alfred who is a young German Sailor. The book consists of alternating first-person chapters. It is very easy to differentiate who is narrating the story as they all have distinct voices. Not an easy feat.
I have enjoyed all of Ruta Sepetys' novels. They are not, however, as intensely character based as I like. Salt to the Sea's plot rushes forward at such a pace that the reader doesn't get a chance to slow down and get to know the characters. The chapters are very short, and I found myself barreling through them to see what would happen. The speed is entirely realistic, but it leads to me loving the book but muddling up the characters. Sepetys takes no time with the frills of description. It does not matter that you don't know what a WWII era German Sailor's uniform looks like because things are happening. I did do a fair bit of googling while reading this book but I like to know exact details and understand the background from more than just context.
This is not to say that the book does not show us the human or that it does not have an impact. It isn't just the obvious parts that can get to but the everyday. For example, there was a scene with a stuffed rabbit that completely caught me off guard and had me choking up. The book packs an emotional punch, and I found myself crying over it on at least three separate occasions. More if you count the afterward and acknowledgments. It is just a case of the plot happening to the characters rather than the characters happening to the plot. Hopefully, that made some sense...
There never seems to be an end to World War II stories. Whenever you think that you are familiar with almost all of it, a story comes along to show you a narrative about something that you have never even heard about. It is why I am endlessly attracted to books set in this period. I vaguely knew that there had been refugees fleeing the Soviet Army, but I had never put together the scope of the situation in my head.
I find it fascinating how a book set more than 70 years ago is so topical. At the moment the refugee crisis in the world is larger than in any other time since the end of WWII. Salt to the Sea shows us how human each of those numbers is, the pain of not having a home to go back to, and the infinite ways that war can steal everything from you. This book needs to be widely read. I am going to be sending this book to several people that I know.
Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.
Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.
As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.
Yet not all promises can be kept.
Inspired by the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, bestselling and award-winning author Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray) lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II. An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope