Salt to the Sea|
Philomel/Penguin Books, 2016 (2017 reprint), PB, 448 pp, $10.99
This well acclaimed young adult novel by Ruta Sepetys is set in winter of 1945, East Prussia. Groups of refugees are escaping the oncoming Russian troops that are razing the collapsing Nazi Reich, and everyone else, including civilians. This story is written in first person perspective by four teens. The chapters are very short, usually between three or four pages, all packed with beautiful, stark and sometimes heartbreaking descriptions by each of the characters.
Joana is a pretty Lithuanian nurse. She becomes the leader of her small group, tending to the scrapes and wounds of her crew. She hopes to reunite with family. She is also plagued with guilt. Florian is a handsome Prussian, he carries papers from a high ranking German, and is so distrustful of everyone he won't even tell anyone his name. He comes across Emilia, a 15 year old Polish girl wearing a pink hat while she is being accosted by a Russian soldier, he saves her and immediately wants to ditch her, but his conscience won't let him as she reminds him of his little sister. Emilia is hiding a secret of her own. The forth character is Alfred, a delusional German soldier who loves the Reich. He believes himself to be smarter than his fellow soldiers, is plagued by psoriasis, writes home (in his mind) to a woman back home that he thinks loves him, and he is constantly ridiculed by everyone. Each of these characters has a mystery which Sepetys reveals slowly during their journey.
While the novel is filled with angst, there is also a continuous thread of caring and hope. There is also a hint of otherworldliness. One of the refugees is a blind girl; her lack of sight gives her almost preternatural awareness of others, not just the heightening of her other senses, but the insight into people's actual character. Another is the "shoe poet", an elderly cobbler who can tell a lot about you by what you're wearing on your feet. This is one lovely excerpt between Joana and the poet:
"The shoes always tell the story", said the shoe poet.
"Not always," I countered.
"Yes, always. Your boots, they are expensive, well made. That tells me that you come from a wealthy family. But the style is one made for an older woman. That tells me they probably belonged to your mother. A mother sacrificed her boots for her daughter. That tells me you are loved, my dear. And your mother is not here, so that tells me you are sad, my dear. The shoes tell the story."
The novel is steering us to the very real and little heard of sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German ship ready to take our young refugees to safety during Operation Hannibal the "largest sea evacuation in modern history". The Gustloff's capacity was for around 1,500 passengers. It took on over 10,000. When the Russian's torpedoed it, the estimate of lives lost was nine thousand, over five thousand were children
Sepetys describes the sinking of the ship, the terror of the passengers and subsequent deaths with care. She also describes it with a distinctive realism. Through the eyes of Joana, Florian, Emilia and Alfred we live what it is like to struggle to survive a sinking ship, a ship with a lack of sufficient life boats. We experience the panic of people climbing over one another to get to the deck; the panic of people jumping into the freezing Baltic Sea.
Although throughout the novel Sepetys' descriptions are vivid and sometimes haunting, she is able to tie them deftly into the mysteries and dramas of our teen characters. We follow Florian as he learns to trust, and perhaps have a mild romance with Joana. We are intrigued by Emilia's secret, and her fear of being found out for being Polish, and we are at times amused and disgusted by Alfred. However, during the sinking we are thrown directly into the sea.
"Bobbing all around us were tiny children. The weight of their heads, the heaviest part of their bodies, had flipped them over in their life vests."
However there is hope. Although throughout the novel we know not everyone can live, the ship lost almost all of its passengers. Septeys is not going to let us down. Her research and compelling characters and wonderful writing make this a must read. On a side note, I've read that this novel is "rated" 13 and up. I would read this first before offering it to any teenager. There is an interesting discussion session at the end, as well as Sepetys own messages to the reader including information about the Wilhelm.