This has been on my digital audio shelf for over a year and I finally got around to it, and the only thing I have to say is: what took me so long?
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys is a masterfully crafted young adult World War II story about fate, survival, and guilt.
As the war draws to a close in East Prussia, thousands of refugees embark on a desperate quest towards freedom. Among them are Joana, a medical student desperate to reunite with her mother, Emilia, a pregnant Polish girl who is trying to outrun her guilt, and Florian, an art conservationist who is on the run. Their paths converge as they board a ship that can lead to their salvation: the “Wilhelm Gustloff.” Just when it seems like their freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes and the three teens are forced to fight for their own survival along with the ten thousand people on the Gustloff.
A book that is moving at times, sad at others, and doesn’t shy away from the tragedy and grotesque nature of war, this audiobook is definitely one that will haunt you.
I love stories with multiple threads. The idea of having characters from different origins that are entwined by a set of circumstances can be very hard to do, and I always appreciate when it is done well.
Salt to the Sea is a good example of that kind of storytelling. Sepetys created characters whose backstories unfurl over the trajectory of the novel, which I thought was very clever, even if I wished that some things were revealed earlier.
The decision to voice these four characters with different people was also a really smart decision. I loved hearing the four different voices, and the four different cadences. All the narrators did a really good job with their storylines!
One of the stories that really resonated, that I had the strongest reaction to was Alfred’s character. Alfred is an S.S. officer who is serving on the Gustloff, and who is written with a dedication to Adolph Hitler, and the delivery coming from Michael Crouch, who voices him makes my skin crawl.
The discomfort I felt with Alfred’s chapters was eased by the story of Joana, Emilia, and Florian, who are very compelling, and who have a desperate need to escape East Prussia and to survive.
But Sepetys doesn’t stop with her four main characters when it comes to strong characterization, she also gives the side characters their own personalities. I really loved the characters of “The Wandering Boy” and “The Shoe Poet” which also made for a cute side relationship throughout the program.
If the characters weren’t compelling, I don’t think this book would have worked really well. It’s not a mystery, there’s nothing to really make you wonder where the twist is, it’s a story of refugees, the cover is abandoned flotation devices, and once they reach the port, you get the feeling that you are headed for a Titanic story.
Still, the writing, the narration in this audiobook, and the writing, in general, make it a very addictive listen. It’s also peaked my interest about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. I really found it fascinating how this wasn’t reported, and how this is a little-known tragedy.
Stories like this are one of the reasons I keep coming back to this time period for more stories because I feel like there are so many perspectives.