When asked what is the worst maritime disaster in our history, chances are most people would say, the Titanic. However, there is a disaster far more devastating, forgotten, within the history of the Second World War: the tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff. With her novel, Salt to the Sea, author Ruta Sepetys aims to bring the horrors of this failed voyage in which over 9,000 people perished, into the spotlight.
Ruta Sepetys is a New York Times bestselling author who has written three novels: Between Shades of Gray, Out of Easy, and Salt to the Sea. Sepetys was born in Detroit, Michigan and is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee. Many of her works express her desires and struggles to find her personal history, as well as Europe’s history within the twentieth century.
In her third and most recent novel, Salt to the Sea, published in 2016, Sepetys explores the largely forgotten tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German cruise liner tasked with transporting over 10,000 refugees from various countries deemed by the Nazi Regime as acceptable.
The novel is focused not only on telling the tale of the Wilhelm Gustloff, but also on the different perspectives of the war and surrounding countries. Sepetys does an excellent job of balancing and switching between the character’s personalities within the novel. The chapters are incredibly short, allowing the reader to assimilate within the storyline easily.
The story tells the struggles of four vastly different characters, all come from completely different countries and walks of life. Joana is a Lithuanian refugee, Florian is a Prussian artist involved in Hitler’s famous art theft around Europe, Emilia is a young Polish girl, who is forced to hide her identity because both Russians and Germans believe her ethnicity to be inferior, and finally, Alfred is a German sailor tasked with the preparations for the refugee boats, including the Wilhelm Gustloff.
What is similar about these characters is their past. In some way, the ongoing war in Europe has left scars and turmoil among the lives of these young teenagers.
Sepetys introduces these characters in a similar fashion, by using the word “hunter” to articulate their inner struggles, which are: guilt, fear, shame, and fate. These four “hunters” dictate how the character feels, acts, and everything they do from the way they speak to one another, to the way they think. It’s an interesting and unique way to essentially tell the reader what the character’s motives and actions are influenced by.
Each of the characters follows their own unique storyline, even though they all eventually intertwine with one another. The storylines are told through the characters’ personal thoughts, resulting in stories that have the similar backdrop of World War II Germany, yet travel between customs in Poland, Lithuania and Prussia.
Sepetys also does a fantastic job of setting a scene from the different viewpoints of the characters. What one character notices or comments on is vastly different from another character, albeit in the same area.
Even though the novel was inspired by the tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the story is also an epic tale of survival and suffering of not only those who died on the Gustloff, but also of those who didn’t make it onto the ship.
Salt to the Sea sheds light not only on a forgotten tragedy, but also on the inner workings of the Axis Powers and the people living within their rule. It is a fantastic read for those who are interested in history and a largely untold viewpoint of Nazi Germany.