Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, Review by Corinne Donnelly
The topic of World War II widely permeates popular literature today, including the young adult genre. Ruta Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea is no exception, although it hones in on a unique aspect of the war: the sinking of the German liner, Wilhelm Gustloff. Often forgotten in the midst of the horrendous atrocities committed, the disaster continues to be the deadliest in maritime history, with over 9,000 souls lost to the sea, most of which were children and civilians.
The novel is told from the perspective of four teenagers: Joana, a Lithuanian nurse, Florian, a Prussian restoration apprentice with a dark past, Emilia, a young Polish girl with a secret, and Alfred, a loyal soldier in the German army devoted to Hitler and his propaganda. Each character narrates their own chapters, which rotate back and forth as the story progresses. The four points of view provide fascinating insights into the events leading up to the disaster, but the chapters are so short that delving into their minds feels somewhat limited.
Sepetys throws the reader into the action with little room to ease into the story. She does manage to establish meaning to each character’s chosen path right away, which helps enormously. Her attempts at lyrical prose never worked for me, although some moments remain memorable, particularly the opening and closing chapters for each character. The middle of the novel drags considerably in comparison to the action-heavy beginning and ending. Small deviations from the norm, such as the letters Alfred writes to his love interest back home, enliven things somewhat, but never quite make up for the dull moments.
War, the main theme of the novel, and its effects play a significant role throughout the plot. All four characters view it differently, with Florian and Alfred possessing the most polar opposite perspectives. The juxtaposition between the two characters is not always effective, as Alfred devotes himself so fully to the Nazi Party that any hope of growth or redemption vanishes completely. Likewise, Florian’s extravagant heroics stop impressing past a certain point.
As someone who never learned about the tragic end of the Wilhelm Gustloff in school, Salt to the Sea was eye-opening. Unfortunately, I found it difficult to believe in characters pigeon-holed into obvious stereotypes. Perhaps this novel was just not meant for me, although I will admit that I would love to read a similar story from a more mature perspective.