“Yes, life can be lonely for the truly exceptional, darling. So I build my own nest and feather it with thoughts of you.“
-From page 151 of Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys.
This book, a work of historical fiction, was truly beautifully told. It chronicles the journey of 4 youths during their journeys to the water evacuations in 1945 during WWII at Gotenhafen, Poland. Although this story, specifically the characters, are fictional, the fate of ship within the book (Wilhelm Gustloff) is very much a true, tragic tale of loss. Personally, I had never heard of this boat, or this historically tragic event. Even though it dwarfs events like the Titanic, it simply isn’t common knowledge. Before I get to much on that, lets talk specifically about the book.
Ruta Sepetys did a wonderful job intertwining the stories of the 4 main characters while maintaining a good speed to the story. Each “chapter” reflects thoughts from one of the characters and never is longer than 3-4 pages. The 4 narrators are as follows:
Joana: a trained nurse who left all of her family to perish in her home country of Lithuania. She is constantly brave, but plagued by guilt for not protecting them better. She uses her grief to push forward and help as many people as she can as a form repentance.
Florian: A Prussian runaway “thief” and forger who uses his skill to advance himself to safety. Although he tries to not let others in (trying to protect them from what he has done), he is truly soft in his heart for others.
Emilia: a Polish girl who was sent by her father to a friends home for protection, although she was not wanted by all in the family.In the beginning, she is saved by Florian, and looks to him as a knight. He was the man that saved her, and would save her future.
Alfred: LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT ALFRED. WHAT SCUM. A sniveling coward!!! Although he, obviously, is my least favorite of the characters, he did gift us that must beautiful quote at the top of my blog entry. Alfred, the rash and blister infested German solider, works aboard the Gustloff…. Although, works is a term I would use lightly, because he mostly creeps around and hides to keep from being tasked with duties. His narrations are actually letters about himself and his journey, written to “his” Hannelore, the girl in the “snug red sweater”…. and boy howdy does he think very highly of himself (read as- he is delusional and has an unwarranted since of grandeur).
Each of our 4 characters carries with them secrets that weigh them down differently. Emilia is probably the most optimistic, while Alfred is the most crazed in my opinion. At multiple points in the book I was shocked that Alfred had not starting murdering people yet, he is truly a sociopath.
I think, of them all, I liked Florian’s input the most throughout the book. I loved the love story that flourished in the background of his narrations for Joana, and even the care he had for all the other people in their group.
I must also note that there is a bunch of symbolism in this book! First, lets talk about birds. Good Lordy, there is so much about birds. I don’t particularly like birds, but I felt most references were with care and love. Birds for birth, and birds for marriage, and birds for new beginnings with the season changing. There were also birds for death, and birds for sorrow. So much in this book talked about birds, or nests, or migrations patterns… I think, most importantly, this book noted that birds held optimism (specifically, I felt like the swan was a mark of the future, perhaps a future stolen back for the people?)
Also, there was a lot about shoes. One of the important secondary characters was a shoemaker. He constantly said that the shoe of a person tells of their journey. Most importantly, if their shoes are not in good shape, then surely the personal shall perish too. The meaning I took from this is that, the journey does not have to be kind, but the person must be strong to survive.
Finally, one of my more favorite parts was Emilia’s prediction for the fate of their boat. (SPOILER) “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.” This prediction, which is from page 218, gave me goosebumps. The foreshadowing throughout was so good, but this one in particular sat with me.
Alright, so this book was very, very good. I truly enjoyed it. It only took me 2 days to finish it. It also encouraged me to look up more about this incredibly tragic ship wreck. An estimated >9,000 people perished on board when the Soviets sent 3 torpedoes to the Gustloff, many of whom died trapped within the ship itself. The capacity of the boat was intended for less than 1,500 people, and at the time it left port, it was estimated that 10,000 people were aboard (about half being children)…. What a tragic, and senseless act of violence. The facts about Gustloff were not published much at the time of the sinking- the Reich did not want to announce this disappointing blow, nor did Soviets want it to be known of the innocent victims included in the carnage… If articles were published, they mostly spoke of a ship with soldiers heading to Germany was sunk by the hands of Soviets… the fact that the majority of the people aboard were civilians, or that the soldiers aboard were injured, was not included. Can you imagine now-a-days if something of this size happened? This was the largest sinking in maritime history, yet it is so rarely known. I find it so unfair that these people suffered so greatly, and in death they were not honored. I think that is why I appreciated this book… it shed light on story, I feel, that should be told. I feel it gave some honor to the people that tragically died Jan 30, 1945. It proves they weren’t forgotten.
(More information can be found : http://www.wilhelmgustloff.com/welcome.htm )
[Also- I was curious for more information about the Soviet Officer, Alexander Marinesko, that sunk the ship. He was not awarded any medals or honors for his duty for the sinking of Gustloff. In fact, apparently, manning the sub that sent the torpedoes was supposed to be some sort of punishment for Marinesko’s activities on New Years Day. You can find out more at this web address: http://www.andrewbrel.com/alexander-marinesko-hero/ … I should note that the Wikipedi page was not informative at all. ]
So- all in all, I really liked this book! My one and only complaint is that we don’t know if Joana ever finds her family, or Florian his sister… buts that is all! I hope my blog entry does it justice, because it is so worth the read… In fact, I borrowed this copy from the library, but I’m surely to purchase it for my shelves. Have you read this book?? Will you add it to your list? Let me know in the comments!
As always, thanks for reading!