By Laura Stevenson
Ruta Sepetys, Salt to the Sea. Philomel Books, 2016.
On January 30, 1945, as desperate northern Europeans fled the Red Army’s advance, the German ship Willhelm Gustloff started into the Baltic from Gotenhafen, carrying 10,500 passengers – wounded German soldiers, military personnel, and civilian refugees, including 5,000 children – to Kiel as part of Operation Hannibal’s evacuation plans. A couple of hours into its passage, the ship was torpedoed by a Russian submarine and it sank in 40 minutes, taking down with it over 9,200 people. It was the largest single maritime disaster in history, far exceeding those of the Titanic or the Lusitania. Almost nobody has heard of it – a situation that “Salt to the Sea” is likely to change.
The book follows three narrators who have nothing in common but youth and misfortune as they join the thousands of refugees fleeing the Russians while the German army crumbles: Joanna, a Latvian; Florian, an East Prussian; and Emilia, a Pole. A fourth narrator, Alfred, is a Nazi sailor who meets them at the boat. Joanna, Florian, and Emilia are refugees thrown together in an unlikely “family” trekking toward Gotenhafen along with a blind girl, a 6-year-old boy, a giantess, and a wise and loving cobbler nicknamed the Shoe Poet.
Each of the narrators, including Alfred, is hiding a secret that is gradually revealed, but the power of the story comes from their endurance of below-zero temperatures, near starvation, and continual strafing by the Russian bombers. The refugees’ relief when they finally achieve passage on the Willhelm Gustloff is immense – and of course ironic, as the sinking of the boat presents them with horrible chaos, cold, and panic that exceeds even what they have endured before. Here, as in her previous best-seller “Between Shades of Gray,” Sepetys has done impeccable research. She has interviewed the survivors of the shipwreck; she has walked the path her refugees have taken; and she has constructed her characters from the narratives she has heard. Her plot moves in two- or three-page segments as each narrator speaks. Initially confusing, the technique becomes addictive: “just one more,” you tell yourself … and read on and on.
The result is a fascinating, moving book that recreates the horrors of the last months of World War II and juxtaposes the tragedy of needless loss with the small but essential triumphs of human love and decency. It is one of the very few war stories that can compare with Anthony Doerr’s “All The Light We Cannot See,” and one that will finally give the loss of the Willhelm Gustloff the historical attention it deserves.