Of the many WW2 books I’ve been reading lately: Secrets She Kept, All the Light We Cannot See, and The Nightingale, Salt to the Sea (debuted at #2 on NY Times bestseller list) may be one of my favorites. Though this true tragedy about refugees fleeing an advancing Russian army is grim, Ruta Sepetys’ characters are hauntingly believable, troubled individuals who nurture one another in the face of incredible fear, guilt, and shame. Their kindnesses are their only hope in their quest for survival.
Salt to the Sea is told by four first-person narrators. All four have a secret and are running from something; what is their hunter?
Joana, Lithuanian nurse who claims to be a murderer, now leading the group; “Guilt is a hunter.”
Emilia, young Polish girl; “Shame is a hunter.”
Florian, good or bad German?; “Fate is a hunter”
Alfred, young Nazi sailor with a twisted philosophy; “Fear is a hunter.”
As these four, and additional secondary characters in their group, press on toward the Baltic Sea, we learn their secrets and why they run. Though the team hopes to reach the German military ship and escape the brutalities of the advancing Russian army, Emilia has doubts: "The Wilhelm Gustloff was pregnant with lost souls conceived of war. They would crowd into her belly and she would give birth to their freedom. But did anyone realize? The ship was christened for a man, Wilhelm Gustloff. My father had told me about him. He had been the leader of the Nazi Party in Switzerland. He was murdered. The ship was born of death." (p. 218)
Joanna narrates what many of us may not know about this sliver of history. (Spoiler Alert). "Everyone knew the story of the big ships, Titanic and Lusitania. I looked toward the thousands of corpses floating in the water. This was so much larger. More than ten thousand people had been on board the Gustloff. The gruesome details of the sinking would be reported in every world newspaper. The tragedy would be studied for years, become legendary." (356)
Legendary? Sadly, not. Though it is the “single greatest tragedy in maritime history,” very few know about this story of refugee flight to disaster. Maybe that's why author Sepetys calls herself the "Seeker of Lost Stories."
In the author’s note, Sepetys, the daughter of a refugee reminds readers that every nation has a hidden history and stories of battle. Though history divides, the study of it can unite. And if reading historical novels ignites something in us, we should “pursue the facts,” and never let the voice of survivors die.
“Books join us together as a global reading community, but more important, a global human community striving to learn from the past.” (p. 383) This Bellwether book of heart and hope would make a great book club selection and opportunity to learn from the past. It’s a fast read especially when the pace quickens with shorter and shorter chapters as the four characters near their destination and dramatic conclusion. Though the brief chapters enable you to pick it up and set it down, you won’t. Each returning character begs you to read another piece of his or her story and discover the hidden secrets of a too unfamiliar event in history.