(Image from Barnes & Noble)
January 1945—World War II is ending in East Prussia, with the merciless Russian Army pushing the bloodthirsty Germans back toward Berlin. Desperate to evacuate, thousands of refugees flee toward the Polish coast, frantic to board ships that will whisk them away to safety. Enduring brutal winter weather conditions, the frayed tempers of war-weary soldiers from two different armies, and the deadly effects of disease and starvation, the refugees are in dire straits. Salvation waits in the form of a re-purposed German pleasure cruiser called the M.S. Wilhelm Gustloff. But fate will not be kind to the ship, nor to her passengers ...
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys tells the largely unknown story of the unlucky refugees who strove so hard to leave East Prussia only to become victims of one of the greatest maritime disasters in history. The tale unfolds through the voices of four distinct narrators, all from different backgrounds, all with something to hide. There's Joana (a cousin to Lina from Between Shades of Gray), a 21-year-old Lithuanian nurse who's evacuating without official orders; Florian Beck, a Prussian on the run with a treasure stolen from the Führer; Emilia Stozek, a pregnant Polish girl with no papers; and Alfred Frick, a German sailor who dreams of proving his greatness. As the lives of the first three intersect, they'll learn astonishing truths about each other—about who they've become and what they've done in the name of survival. Although wary of trusting anyone at all, the three will come to need each other more than they could have ever imagined. Alfred, who is so eager to prove himself, will get the chance. But will he succeed or fail?
When the fates of all four narrators intersect aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, the quartet must once again battle for their own survival. Some will prove themselves heroes, others cowards. At the end of the day, will any of them be among the meager survivors? Or will their efforts to reach Gotenhafen be in vain, their bodies committed forever to a watery grave?
If you've read Between Shades of Gray, Sepetys' first novel, you already know the author is a master at creating vivid, affecting prose. That gift is never more evident than in Salt to the Sea, her third novel (which is a companion to her first). Not only does she create a cold, terrifying setting that feels like a nightmare come to life, but she also forms intriguing, complex characters that help us see the horrors of war from four different points of view. Both are extremely effective devices which combine to make Salt to the Sea a rich, deeply moving tale. So much of the story is brutal and bleak, but it's also surprisingly buoyant and bolstering. It's been a couple months since I read this book, but I'm still haunted by it. One of my favorite reads of 2015, Salt to the Sea is a rich, moving novel that simply cannot be missed.
Note: Considering the fact that 9,000+ people (more than three times the number who perished on the Titanic and Lusitania combined) died in the Wilhelm Gustloff disaster, it's amazing that I'd never heard of the boat until reading Salt to the Sea. The story is a fascinating one, tragic and true. If you'd like to read more about it, try www.wilhelmgustloff.com and wilhelmgustloffmuseum.com.
If this were a movie, it would be rated:
for brief, mild language (no F-bombs), violence, blood/gore