“War is catastrophe. It breaks families in irretrievable pieces. But those who are gone are not necessarily lost.” – Sepetys 378

I’m a sucker for historical fiction, and Ruta Sepetys is the best of the best when it comes to this genre. Even though she mainly writes for young adults, you don’t have to be young to enjoy her writing. 

Salt to the Sea was one of the most popular novels amongst my students in 2019 and 2020. I had to get on board.

The novel follows the intertwined stories of four Eastern European adolescents caught in the throes of World War II — Joana, Florian, Emilia, and Alfred. Each of them feels hunted by guilt, fate, shame, and fear.

“Guilt is a hunter.”

Sepetys 1

“Fate is a hunter.”

Sepetys 3

“Shame is a hunter.”

Sepetys 5

“Fear is a hunter.”

Sepetys 7

Joana is a Lithuanian nurse running from her past; Florian is a Prussian deserter seeking vengeance against the Nazis; Emilia is a Polish girl with a heavy secret, and Alfred is a Hitler youth grappling with his feelings for a young Jewish girl.

“I moved from body to body, treating blisters, wounds, frostbite. But I had no treatment for what plagued people the most. Fear.”

Sepetys 21

“So now I risked everything, confronting fate and the knowledge that I had authored my own demise. But only if I failed.”

Sepetys 108

“They had burned our books in the Polish language. But I had learned to read very young. They could never take that away from me.” Sepetys 68

Sepetys 68

“Was my beloved Deutschland losing her footing? Was such a thing possible?”

Sepetys 50

Joana meets both Florian and Emilia along her journey towards the Wilhelm Gustloff. This ship will carry her to safety. 

Florian rescues Emilia from Soviet soldiers. She sees him as her knight in shining armor, her protector, even though Florian prefers to travel alone. 

“For me he was a conqueror, a sleeping knight, like in the stories Mama used to tell. Polish legend told of a king and his brave knights who lay asleep within mountain caverns. If Poland was in distress, the knights would awaken and come to the rescue. I told myself that the handsome young man was a sleeping knight.”

Sepetys 17

Once in contact with Joana, Emilia receives the care she needs and pressures Florian to stay with their group. Despite his reluctance, there is something about Joana that makes him stay.

In their group of refugees is an old, wise man whom Joana looks to for guidance and calls the “shoe poet.” He infers peoples’ backgrounds based on their shoes.

“‘The shoes always tell the story.’”

Sepetys 14

All four find their way onboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that — in real life — carried citizens and soldiers to safety from the aggression of Soviet soldiers, who were in the process of toppling the Third Reich. As part of Operation Hannibal, many of the soldiers were German; many citizens were from Eastern Europe. 

“Germany was finally telling people what they should have said months ago. Run for your lives.”

Sepetys 98

Not to give anything away, but the Gustloff sunk. Don’t worry; I’m not spoiling anything about the fate of our protagonists. You can look up the fate of the Gustloff. It was a nautical disaster with more casualties than the Titanic, but no one really knows about it!

“How foolish to believe we are more powerful than the sea or the sky. I watched from the raft as the beautiful deep bean to swallow the massive boat of steel. In one large gulp.”

Sepetys 341

“How would the Nazis report the news of the sinking? But then I realized. They wouldn’t report it at all.”

Sepetys 355

Sepetys’s novel sheds light on these refugees aboard the Gustloff and those caught in the crosshairs of Axis and Ally powers at the end of the war.

“Two warring nations gripped Poland like girls fighting over a doll. One held the leg, the other the arm. They pulled so hard that one day, the head popped off.”

Sepetys 202

Ultimately, Salt to the Sea unflinchingly interrogates the horror that war and violence wreak on children, regardless of their background and whose side they are on. They are innocents who incur the most damage when adults refuse to work things out intelligently.

“‘This war . . . do you realize that young people are fighting on tiny islands in the Pacific Ocean and marching through the deserts of North Africa? We are freezing and they are dying of heat. So many unfortunate children.’”

Sepetys 49

“Mother was anchor. Mother was comfort. Mother was home. A girl who lost her mother was suddenly a tiny boat on an angry ocean. Some boats eventually floated ashore and some boats, like me, seemed to float farther and farther from land.”

Sepetys 155-6

“‘The children and young people, you are the unlucky ones. This war has murdered many futures.”

Sepetys 314

My grandfather was only twenty-one when he saw the horrors of a concentration camp. War and violence are rooted in evil, pride, and ego. There’s almost always another alternative, but it seems the world has yet to embrace this fact. And it is the children who innocently suffer.

“What had human beings become? Did war make us evil or just activate an evil already lurking within us?”

Sepetys 79

Support local and independent bookstores by getting Salt to the Sea on Bookshop.org instead of Amazon. Here is why supporting local and independent businesses is the way to go!

Trigger Warnings: blood; death; drowning; gore; guns; rape; war (WWII); wounds

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