I usually watch Titanic every April, around the time of the the famous shipwreck’s anniversary. I couldn’t say exactly why, but I find shipwrecks tragically fascinating. But this year, instead of watching Titanic, I decided to do something a little different and read about the MV Wilhelm Gustloff in Ruta Sepetys’ latest YA historical fiction novel, Salt to the Sea.
About the book: Joana is a Lithuanian nurse, searching for her mother, the only family she has left. Florian is a Prussian artist, running from the secret crimes that he didn’t know he was assisting. Emilia is an orphaned Polish girl with a sad past and someone who will depend on her in the future. Florian’s injuries–both real and fabricated–will require Joana’s assistance, and Emilia refuses to leave the side of the boy (Florian) who saved her from a Russian soldier, so the three stick together in an (at first) illegal evacuation group traveling to Prussia’s coast in 1945 in hopes of boarding a ship to safer land. Alfred is a self-involved German soldier tasked with helping to prepare the MV Wilhelm Gustloff for imminent departure of evacuees–including the three teens who’ve met on the road. Circumstances and personal motivations keep these four main characters’ fates connected as they each battle with secrets from their pasts and the uncertainty of what’s to come.
“Just when you think this war has taken everything you loved, you meet someone and realize that somehow you still have more to give.”
About the layout: Salt to the Sea is narrated in brief, alternating sections from our four main characters’ points of view. Usually I am drawn to short chapters and alternating perspectives, but something about the layout of this book didn’t quite work for me. The story actually takes place over a relatively short span of time, only a few days, and we see much of that time from each character’s view. The good thing about Sepetys’ alternating sections is that they never feel like backtracking. It’s a pet peeve of mine when a new character’s section goes back to the beginning of the last character’s section and tells the same thing with a different set of eyes, which is not the case with this book. But many of Sepetys’ sections had similar statements, hitting the same mysterious past incidents and giving the same sense of ominous foreshadowing as the sections before it. The reader understands early on that each character has a secret, and that each will face catastrophe before the end of the book. I don’t mind piecing together these events little by little with the narrators. What I do mind is being reminded repeatedly that there are things I don’t know at times when answers are not being provided. To put it simply, I thought there were too many hints when there could simply have been more narration. Perhaps longer sections would have helped keep the narration more grounded in the present.
On the other side of that argument, though, I would like to acknowledge that I did appreciate the background information on what had already happened and was currently happening with the war. Usually I don’t like being informed so blatantly of details that the characters know without thinking–it feels inauthentic for them to explain things they already know, like they’re talking down to the reader. (Consider a story about your own life taking place right now, but being read 70 years in the future. While those readers might appreciate a bit of background about what type of cell phone you’re using and how it works, it’s not something your character would otherwise need to describe in detail because it’s a ubiquitous part of life in 2017.) But here, the characters talk or think about real historical events and concerns in ways that also reveal something about themselves or their experiences, rather than simply stating facts in a way that would alienates the reader from the story. Salt to the Sea is firmly a fictional narrative, and never feels like a dry history book of logistics and statistics.
About the characters: Each of the four characters is given equal importance in this book, due to the fact that they each have their own sad stories to reveal and also because each of their present stories revolves around the other characters, keeping everyone in play. Although Alfred is not exactly part of the group, he is perhaps the most intriguing character. He’s a Hitler supporter entirely, often dropping comments that would be easy to hate him for if he wasn’t also so tragic and funny. He’s been sheltered and misguided, led astray by privilege and protective parents, and is pitiable rather than someone to loathe because he doesn’t understand the wrongness of his thoughts and actions. His compelling creepiness more than makes up for the part of the book in which he has no contact with the other characters.
Good or evil, hopeful or hopeless, Sepetys links the reader to each character’s storyline just in time for death and destruction to hit. The catastrophe on the over-crowded ship hits especially hard because the reader is invested in the lives on board. And that is precisely what gives the book its powerful impact. It’s at this point that the reader remembers this is a real event being fictionalized, there were thousands of real lives, each with their own stories like Florian, Joana, Emilia, and Alfred have theirs, and all in peril. The reader is compelled onward not only for the sake of the four main characters, but to learn what became of this little-known WWII tragedy.
“How do you defend yourself against the prolonged, insufferable agony of knowing you will surrender to the sea?”
About the ending: this is a book that had to hit just the right number of main character fatalities. If everyone died, the story wouldn’t land quite right. If everyone lived, the story would seem completely unrealistic and as though it were making light of what it was acknowledging as a truly awful disaster. I am pleased to announce that Sepetys found the perfect balance of loss and hope with the ending of this book, not only with the outcome on the sea, but what would happen later regarding these characters. I found the last chapter particularly satisfying.
“How foolish to believe we are more powerful than the sea or sky.”
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Tales of shipwreck are, for some reason, particularly appealing to me. I like to grieve them. And yet… it took a long time for this book to feel like it was really pulling me forward into the sinking. Maybe it’s something about YA historical fiction, but for some reason I never have quite as strong a reaction to it as I hope going in. Still, I liked this book enough to add Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray to my list, as well.
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is a great YA historical fiction about WWII. This one follows a young girl in Germany who wants to be able to read, and her troubled but mostly kind caretakers; the story is narrated by Death, which is what sold me on this one.
- Tatiana de Rosney’s Sarah’s Key is an emotional tale of two siblings in WWII and what became of them. This one’s written for adults but features the story of children when the war reached France, giving it the dual perspectives of youth in the war and wiser reflection in the aftermath.
What’s next: I’ve just finished reading Lauren Graham’s Talking as Fast as I Can, a Gilmore Girls and acting career memoir. I’ve heard the audiobook is good, but I’m glad I read a physical copy. Stay tuned to find out why, and whether this one’s worth the read no matter the medium.
The Literary Elephant