Linda S. Gunther reviews Ruta Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea

Book cover of Ruta Sepetys' Salt to the Sea. Three pairs of shoes, brown men's shoes, black women's flats, and red children's shoes, stacked up on a rocky wet beach.
War is hell. We all know that. We are living in a time where, with social media, television and the internet, we cannot ignore the thousands of people suffering in many parts of the world; people fleeing from their country’s enemy, explosions occurring daily, houses and infrastructure destroyed, famine, families separated, outright chaos and an unimaginable degree of civilian death.

This historical fiction novel, SALT to the SEA by Ruta Sepetys, takes us back to 1945 World War II Germany, in East Prussia; to a time and scenario where thousands of civilians are subject to immediate evacuation or be killed. The scenario depicted in 1945 Prussia is equal to a page out of current day (2024) news in Ukraine, Israel, Gaza, Haiti as well as in other parts of the world, people desperate to escape war zones.

For me, the underlying themes of this novel were wrapped around: hope, trust, instinct and the strength of strangers in a group who bond together to face a “life or death” crisis. Each of the main and secondary characters in this book has a unique perspective based on his/her cultural background, nationality and personal experiences before and during the war. 

The ages of the characters in this story range from 6 years old to 70+ years old. The small group meet for the first time when holed up in a cabin in the German forest in the middle of a snowy winter; most of them traveling alone, starved, hoping to get to a coastal port, and then board a ship to take them to safety. The hope for each of them is to somehow eventually make it back to their respective family in their home country, and not be murdered by Russians or Germans along the road. At first, the small group agree to stick together. They set out from the cabin in the woods on the treacherous journey, determined to reach the Baltic port of Gotenhafen, hoping to board the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, a cruise ship re-purposed by the German military to evacuate the thousands of displaced citizens.

The characters crafted by Ruta Sepetys are both colorful and complicated. And this is what I love most about this book. Characters include: an old man the group refers to as the ‘Shoemaker Poet,’ (the sage of the group), a pretty 21-year-old Lithuanian nurse (Joana), a 6-year-old lost boy (Klaus), a blind teenage German refugee (Ingrid), a 19-year-old museum apprentice from Prussia (Florian), a sometimes abrasive woman from Norway (Eva) and a 15-year-old Polish girl likely targeted for elimination by Nazis. Their collective mission is to reach the East Prussian port uninjured and ‘alive.’ 
Of course, there is internal conflict for several of the characters, as well as disagreements between group members. This heightens the tension as we move along in the story. For me, an author myself, I feel that there is no doubt that a story without conflict can lack believability and authenticity. Ruta Sepetys is a master at showing readers both internal and external conflicts without going overboard or appearing contrived. 

There is another key character in the story, a young German soldier named Alfred (Frick) who is not traveling with this small group of evacuees. Alfred has low self-esteem and also a passionate dedication to Adolf Hitler. Greatly flawed, Alfred is determined to prove to his family back home in Heidelberg and to the girl he loves and writes letters to, that he is becoming a hero in the German army, and is critical to the success of the massive evacuation. He is situated on the ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, and in reality, assigned to menial tasks.

There are secrets about each of the key characters which are artfully revealed one by one by Sepetys. This writing technique kept me riveted as reader. SALT to the SEA is a book that I couldn’t put down, just a 2-day read for me. There were times when I thought I couldn’t take any more of the horror embedded in these pages but I cared so greatly for many of the characters and was anxious find out their next steps and see how they would navigate the scary obstacles and challenges anticipated.

The scene at the East Prussian port is chaotic; harrowing for each member of the small group, a few of them pretending they are alternative nationalities, so they would successfully be granted permission to board. It’s ‘touch and go’ for everyone at the port, and the tension the author creates is sizzling.

Readers may know ahead of picking up this book, that the ship, the “Wilhelm Gustloff” was in fact, ill-fated, and resulted in a much more catastrophic disaster than the well-known ‘Titanic,’ in terms of numbers of human casualties. The ship was, as mentioned earlier in this review, originally designed as a cruise ship. It was built to hold a maximum of 1400 souls. Yet, the German military loaded the ship with nearly 10,000 evacuees.

I won’t say more. The nuggets I shared here in this review in terms of plot and characters are often included in many previews of this well-written book.

Although this story is heart-wrenching, there are some bright lights all the way through, including plenty of romance, friendship and inspiring family scenarios. My belief is that readers will be fully invested in finding out who, in this unlikely group, endure the journey and who unfortunately fail to make it. I believe that the ending to SALT to the SEA, although painful, will leave readers hopeful and inspired. 
Reading historical fiction has been a great portal for me to continue to learn about the world that ‘was’ before I was born. But it also helps me see more clearly the repeated and disastrous mistakes in judgment made by at least a handful of selfish leaders across our planet.

Thank you Ruta Sepetys for your incredible story.


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