Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, is an exciting yet heart wrenching YA novel about four young people caught in a struggle to survive. The story picks up from 1945 Nazi Germany; The Soviets tearing up the Eastern side, with the Allied forces closing in from the west. Hitler’s Third Reich is falling to pieces before him, and regular citizens are stuck in a struggle to survive with what’s left.
The book follows four main characters from different backgrounds, each trying to help each other escape capture from Soviet-Russian forces. Rather than having a specific character for a reader’s point of view, the centre of attention alternates, with each chapter shifting to a different person and each chapter is labeled with the character’s name. This allows the reader to see each character’s perspective of the plot, similar how there are scenes in movies.
With this constant change, the book seems to unexpectedly shift between perspectives. It can get a little confusing, since one of the main characters is an antagonist (though they do prove critical in the end).
The novel touches on some topics that are regularly done in a dystopian themed novel, though there are some differences. An all-powerful dictatorship, a struggle to survive, a small group against the oppressive government, so on and so forth. Though unlike some other books such as The Hunger Games, there are some more bitter and rather harsh moments in the book.
The main story starts off slow with a lot of characters in the beginning. With so much going on, it can get confusing. Though, later the book’s main message starts to unfold, with a lot of hidden messages and drama to keep you interested. As I was reading, I was reminded of the Hunger Games, yet the story feels much more different, as if it has less of the exciting parts and more of a depressing outlook as you read on. It touches on not only the typical expectations of people living in war, but some rather unique and unexpected events as well.
For example, there’s one case where the group needs to pass through a security checkpoint, guarded by the Waffen-SS. While in reality not a lot may happen, it’s easy to picture what they are going through. The way that Ruta writes the scene causes so much suspense. One wrong move and they could get caught, or sent to a concentration camp, or worse. The book doesn’t fail to keep you on the edge of your seat, as anything could happen in a moments notice.
There was one undeniable theme in the book. The fact that people who largely disagree with each other needed to set back their differences in order to survive. Florian is a Prussian artist that stole Adolf Hitler’s amber swan, one of his most prized possessions. At first, he had no intention of helping the group get to safety and only thought of himself, fearing capture. However, after he saved Emilia, a fifth teen Polish girl from rape from a Russian soldier, he slowly starts to warm up to the idea of helping her escape war torn Germany. They later find a medical outpost and meet Joana, a Lithuanian nurse. The three then head west, while evading German soldiers and getting through security checkpoints. They board the ill-fated Wilhelm Gustloff, a German hospital ship.
The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff was the largest loss of life in maritime history. Over 9400 people lost their lives to the Soviet Submarine S-13. I liked the whole setting of the book. The Wilhelm Gustloff is rarely known or mentioned in History textbooks or classes. This adds something new compared to most WWII related novels.
In all, the book has a great story and it is well written. However, the chapters are short and the perspective shifts from person to person on each chapter, which I don’t personally dislike, but since the chapters are fairly short, it can get confusing at times. The tension in the book is immense, but it moves slowly. If you get bored easily, then this book isn’t for you.
However, if you enjoy going through the fairly grim and dark reality of war, then I highly recommend it.