Salt to the Sea
by Ruta Sepetys
Books about wars from any period tend to leave a lasting effect on me. Stories about the struggle, the hunger, the pain, and anger stay longer than I’d care to admit. Mostly, I’m overcome with admiration to the characters; it had me thinking about how I could never have survived had I lived in that era. I’m particularly drawn to stories about World War II. Two years ago, I was completely enamored with Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and Michael Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. Then, last year, I discovered Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena; it’s not set in the same time period, but just as affecting regardless. It was a book set during the Chechen war. But these books have one thing in common: they were written by authors who has an uncanny ability to transform horrific tales into something beautiful. Salt to the Sea was no different.
Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets. Each one born of a different homeland; each one 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.
One of the reasons that I enjoy reading books in this genre is that it affords me the opportunity to learn something. Before starting this, I knew nothing about Wilhelm Gustloff or the “Amber Room”. After I wiped the snot dripping off my nose, I took to the trusty Wikipedia and did a bit of side reading. It did indeed happen. For a moment or two, I felt the same indignance Ms. Sepetys felt for the way we’ve dismissed this disaster. We certainly haven’t given it the same reverence as we do the Titanic. And I know it’s tough considering who were on the ship to begin with. But we need to remember that they were mostly refugees and victims of war and that they, too, deserve to be remembered.
Reading historical fiction is not always going to be an easy read. More often, they tend to be heavy on the narrative and dry. Salt to the Sea is not the kind of historical fiction, however. Sepetys’ writing has a one-sitting type of reading quality. The pacing was swift and not at all inundated by the four-person points of view. She set up the novel in such a way that readers would have a heavy weight on their chests, ominously waiting for that looming heartbreak. There was sporadic humor that felt out of place, but I felt was necessary. It made the story even more endearing.
And of course, the characters. Oh, these lovely characters! They were full of life, and love. Despite the hopelessness of their situation, this motley crew was one of the most compelling band of characters I’ve read in a long time. They looked out for each other, bonded by the will to survive. There were romance and stories of their lives before the war. They were heartbreaking, poignant and gorgeous – but mostly, sad. Box of tissues required.