I’m a big fan of historical fiction, almost as much as I love fantasy and science-fiction. So it’s great when I find a well-written historical fiction, but it’s even better when that historical fiction makes me understand what draws me to such stories: the depiction of humanity in its truest form. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys is a hard book to read because it’s based on a tragic historical event, but the depths of humanity it reaches spoke to me in a way historical fiction hasn’t in a long time.
Baltic Sea, 1945. More than 10,500 passengers—soldiers, wartime personnel, and refugees—board the Wilhelm Gustloff in a chance to escape from the advancing Red Army. Less than a thousand survive after Soviet torpedoes sink the German cruise liner. This is their story.
Salt to the Sea is narrated from four rotating points of view in order to chronicle the greatest tragedy in maritime history from all sides. There are refugees, soldiers, Nazi sympathizers, Nazi haters, victims, and villains in this story. But most importantly, these four perspectives are human. Albert, the German soldier, may come across a bit delusion at times, but his perspective is just as important as the others.
At first, I wasn’t sure the four perspectives would work. I didn’t think switching back and forth every couple pages—since every chapter was short—would work for a story. I tend to latch on to certain characters in multi-perspective novels, always eager to return to one point of view as I drag myself through a different one. But for this novel, that didn’t happen. The way Ruta Sepetys writes the characters and the short, snappy chapters, I was invested in all of their lives, eagerly turning the page to read just one more chapter in order to learn what happens to the characters.
And that’s what sticks out the most to me about this book: the characters. Yes, the descriptions of the barren forest, the abandoned and ransacked mansions, the overcrowded ships, the cold of the frozen sea are all well-written and hauntingly beautiful in detail. There are moments from this book that will linger long after finishing, just imagining how people react in certain circumstances and how desperate we all are to live. These details bring the backdrop to life, but the characters are the heart of the story. Ruta Sepetys succeeded in making me not only care for each and every character, but I rooted for them.
I wanted Emilia to live another day as a mother to her unwanted and unexpected child. I wanted Florian and Joana to find love and freedom. I wanted to see the wandering boy happy with the shoe poet by his side. I even wanted Albert to learn what it meant to have purpose and direction.
This event in history is not one I ever heard of, and I am grateful Ruta Sepetys took the time to research it and write this story, shedding light on something so tragic. I can see parallels with the refugees fleeing from the Red Army with many people groups trying to survive in certain places in our world today. Historical fiction is meant to tell stories to help us with our own histories, our own stories, reminding us of our own lives and struggles. And Salt to the Sea succeeded in that. It tells a story of hope, of humanity at both its worst and its best, of the desperation for freedom and life, and most importantly, of the resilience to live another day.