Based around the real sinking of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, Ruta Sepetys’s novel, Salt to the Sea, is a quick-paced tale of strangers pushed together in straitened circumstances. All of them have secrets and agendas. All of them just want to get somewhere safe and wait for the war to end. The tension builds with every strafing from the Russian air force and every demand for papers from Wehrmacht soldiers. Sepetys makes the situation so dire for her protagonists that I honestly wondered if anyone would survive.
Salt to the Sea is told from four perspectives. One of the first narrators we meet is Florian, a man with a very dangerous secret and a gift for forgery. On his way from the Baltic states back to Germany (just before the beginning of Operation Hannibal, a staged evacuation from the eastern front), he meets Joana—a Lithuanian nurse—and Emilia—a pregnant Polish refugee—and their group. Joana does her best to keep everyone in their group healthy, but she’s up against near impossible odds. Emilia is a traumatized mess (justifiably, we learn), who has managed to put one foot in front of the other for longer than most people could have done. I was rooting so hard for all three of these characters.
The fourth voice comes from Alfred Frick, an officious coward who has wrangled a position in the Kriegsmarine in a low level and hopefully safe corner of the war. Unlike the other narrators, who tell their stories and experiences directly, Alfred is a very unreliable narrator due to his self-aggrandizing delusions. Most of his chapters take the form of letters he composes for a girl in Heidelberg. Even though I found the little twerp despicable, his chapters turned into a fascinating psychological portrait.
Salt to the Sea is a race. The chapters are often only a few paragraphs long. Some of them show the same events from the perspectives of the different narrators. I could easily see this book turned into a film. In fact, it almost played that way in my head. Sepetys also has a knack for slowly revealing the characters’ secrets in such a way that I felt like a detective piecing together little clues to get see the whole picture. Even though there’s death at almost every turn, I really enjoyed this book.