Salt to the Sea
Advanced Reader Copy courtesy of NetGalley
In 1945, thousands desperately flee Nazi-controlled East Prussia (modern-day Northern Poland and Lithuania along the Baltic Sea) ahead of a wave of Russian military invasion that brings looting, rape, and almost certain death to those in its path. Among these refugees are a small, eclectic group – including Joana, a beautiful Lithuanian nurse and leader of the group; Florian, a mysterious German; and Emilia, a strange and frightened Polish girl, all of whom narrate the story in alternating chapters – brought together by their circumstances. The group is picking their way across the countryside toward the port at Gotenhoffen in the slim chance that they can board one of a handful of ships evacuating people to Germany. Only some survive the treacherous journey full of Nazi checkpoints, dangerous crossings, bitter cold, and near starvation, but for those who make it aboard the ship Wilhem Gustloff, the nightmare is only beginning.
I finished this book a few days ago and I cannot stop thinking about it. To say this story is haunting is an understatement. First of all, how had I never heard about this bit of World War II history? Sepetys’s author’s note at the end of the book is fascinating. I read it aloud to my husband at breakfast the morning after I finished the book, punctuated by “can you believe that?” Her research notes and the sheer amount of travel and interviews she did is also amazing.
Second of all, a well written, first-person telling of a major disaster always gets inside my head (Ninth Ward by Jewel Parker Rhodes about Hurricane Katrina comes to mind). When you hear about big disasters – natural or otherwise – on the news or in a history book, it’s difficult to imagine experiencing something of that magnitude first hand – the pace of the event, the realization of what has or is going to happen, the terror and instinct for survival, the uncertainty and enormity of it all. Hopefully not many of us will experience anything like this for ourselves so reading about it and putting yourself in the character’s place is extra powerful.
ALERT: tiny spoiler ahead, an insignificant one but I’m not trying to ruin anything…
There were a couple things that go unexplained that have been bothering me. How can a day-old newborn survive without his or her mother in the conditions at the end of this book? There’s also a stolen crystal butterfly that appears very briefly and then is briefly mentioned again near the end of the book. I can’t figure out what the deal is with this butterfly despite its being stolen by one of the narrators – a Nazi sailor named Alfred. If I think about it long enough, I can probably find some symbolism for it in this narrator’s back story, but if so, it is subtle. Or I just read too fast. Or it’s just one of those mysterious loose ends intentionally put in the story to remind us that not everything has an answer and not everything can be known, especially under the circumstances of this story.
Youth lit awards season is upon us so I know it’s a bit early. However, depending on what else comes out this year, I think this one has potential to be considered for recognition in 2016.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Ninth Ward by Jewel Parker Rhodes
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys