Book Club Review for November 2017: Salt to the Sea

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November 2017 – Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

blog by Cindy Bushey

In addition to the venerable adage “to the victor goes the spoils”, there is a lesser adage stating victors write the history books.  If you ask people to name the most horrific maritime disaster, they often say the sinking of the Lusitania or the sinking of the Titanic.  These were terrible tragedies with the former having approximately 1200 people dead and the latter about 1600 dead.  However, they don’t hold a candle to the loss of life incurred when the Wilhelm Gustloff sank on January 30, 1945 in the Baltic Sea.  This ship, built for approximately 1500 passengers, was pressed into service to move Nazi officials, German military personnel, German civilians, and refugees out of Poland ahead of the incoming Soviet Red Army.  On that fateful day with all the panic of evacuation, it was overloaded with close to 10,000 people including crew.  It was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine, and over 9,000 people lost their lives in the icy Baltic.  Yet this catastrophe remains virtually unknown in the West because Germany lost World War II.  Historical writers were not inclined to waste empathy and sympathy on vanquished foes.

In the United States, especially, there is little mention of the happenings on the Eastern front during World War II.  This country was concentrating on Nazi war crimes and nurturing an uneasy alliance with Stalin’s Russia which lost 11,000,000 people during the war.  The civilians of Poland, Lithuania, and other Baltic countries who found themselves caught between retreating vengeful conquerors and the revenge-minded Red Army wanting to punish the Germans for atrocities committed on their soil barely rate mentions or footnotes in history classes.  It is interesting to note that 4 out of every 5 German soldiers eventually fought on the Eastern front.  In 1945, the German army was caught in a vise that was rapidly closing with the United States, Britain, and their allies on one side, and the Soviets on the other.   Unfortunate civilians were also trapped, and Zion’s readers met a few of them in our November selection Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys.

While the author has written this novel with young adults as the target audience and has more shallow character development than our readers liked, it is a worthwhile read for more mature readers, too.  Ms. Sepetys has used the technique of short chapters, some only two pages, to introduce her characters.  Each chapter is devoted to one character, so the reader can see what is happening through that character’s eyes.  At first, it’s a little difficult to keep the characters straight, but soon they become familiar.  The Lithuanian nurse whose part German heritage allows her to travel back to Germany, the German soldier carrying a heavy secret about art stolen by the Nazis including the still unfound Amber Room, the pregnant Polish teenager running from the Soviets, the orphaned boy who attaches himself to an old shoemaker, the blind teenage girl who sees some things very clearly, the overly frank middle-aged woman looking out for number one, the young, brainwashed German sailor living in an alternate mental reality – all gradually reveal their horrors as they make their way to the Wilhelm Gustloff.  The cold, hunger, and fear which are daily companions are experienced vicariously by the reader through the author’s gripping description.   We watched as they decided where to place their trust, how to work together to get to the ship, the tortuous weighing of risks, the formation of a sort of family unit.  We wondered how anyone could survive with that amount of stress, we mourned the loss of a character, we saw fundamental decency bloom, and we grew angry at self-centeredness.  Under all the emotions, we wondered what kind of showing we would make in similar circumstances.

Daily details of life under occupation became clearer when one of our readers shared actual German ID booklets, a work booklet, and a ration booklet which had come home with a family member in the U.S. military during World War II.  Seeing these artifacts made scenes in the book resonate and enabled us to feel some of the fear that was peoples’ constant companion.  This in combination with Ms. Sepetys’s beautifully chosen words brought us into the story in a very real way.

And then everything blew apart with those torpedoes.  Characters that had been alive the page before were now gone.  But some survived and, with the loss of everything, had the chance to make something new.  While the author made an abrupt jump of twenty years and left a mystery still hanging, and while our readers would have enjoyed more details of those years, the ending was still a triumph of the human spirit.  There were sobering parallels to today’s boats of Syrian refugees fleeing war and crossing the Mediterranean, bringing only their hope of a new beginning.  There was the recollection of a German war bride who came to our community with her U.S. soldier husband after World War II and endured bias and hatred due to her German heritage.  It is disheartening 72 years after the Wilhelm Gustloff sank to see wars still causing refugees, people still living in fear and want, people still experiencing ostracism and worse.  Yet, the final message of Salt to the Sea is one of hope, moving forward, and building on the past to make a better future.  That is a message that needs to be heard by young adults and older adults, and for that our readers unanimously highly recommend this novel with all 12 readers giving it one thumb up.