5 out of 5 stars
Read this now! Salt to the Sea is a WWI historical fiction novel that will equally gut and amaze you.
Salt to the Sea is set in Germany at the end of WWII, as everyone flees toward evacuation ahead of the arriving Russian army. Joanna, a Lithuanian nurse displaced from her home and family for four years, leads a ragtag crew of survivors toward the port city of Gotenhafen. Along the way, she collects an old shoemaker who can interpret a person’s story by their footwear, a young boy wandering the forest with a Berlin address pinned to his coat, a terrified Polish girl with a secret, and a clever, mysterious (and handsome, ofc) young German man of military age, on the run in his own land. They struggle toward, and eventually reach, the harbor, where they lie, sneak and work their way aboard a ship called the Wilhelm Gustloff.
The Gustloff was a real ship. If you’ve never heard of the it, I’m tempted to say you should stop reading this now. Perhaps the biggest wow factors of this look are that 1) most people (including me) have never heard of the Gustloff and 2) how have we never heard of this ship?!
Spoilers and real history ahead.
The Gustloff, a passenger ship pressed into duty as a hospital ship during WWII, was built to sail with roughly 1,500 souls aboard. During the German evacuation, it was loaded with over 10,000 people. They got off the mainland, only to have the the Russians catch the ship at sea. On January 30, 1945, the Gustloff was torpedoed in the Baltic Sea. An astonishing 9,400 (est.) people were lost. The sinking of the Gustloff is the largest maritime disaster in history, the most lives lost from the sinking of a single ship. Ever.
Yet I’d never heard of it. Probably because it wasn’t famously touted or revisited like the Titanic (1,503 dead) or full of British people, and some Americans, like the torpedoed Lusitania (1,198 lost). But that’s where Salt to the Sea‘s biggest strength lies.
The people of this story are all victims of the war, from the inside. Caught between madness in their own countries – overtaken, overrun, gutted destroyed eviscerated this doesn’t even need commas because it’s one long horror. Polish, Lithuanian, young, old, ethical, outraged, terrified – the heroic characters in Salt to the Sea are everyone. They don’t go to war, war comes to them, and they’re lucky to have this one slim chance at escape.
If I have one qualm with this book, it’s the caricature Nazis who impede our heroes’ progress: maniacally vapid, drunk on power. But Joanna, Frederich and the others recognize these flaws and exploit them; each time it’s a wholly satisfying intellectual victory.
Salt to the Sea triumphs in two ways: an epic fictional story starring instantly connectable characters who battle real evil with true hearts, and a historical backdrop that is at once terrifyingly familiar and astonishingly new.
All that, and I didn’t even mention that Salt to the Sea features my all time favorite art heist/mystery/lost treasure! The wreck of the Gustlof still lies on the floor of the Baltic Sea, protected by the Polish government from anyone diving within 500 meters, to ward off treasure hunters.
This book really is outstanding. It’s now time to read everything else Ruta Septys has ever written.