Tuesday, February 28, 2017

REVIEW: Salt to the Sea

Salt to the Sea
Author: Ruta Sepetys

When I first heard of this book I was shocked that I had never heard about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff during WWII. The German Military transport ship was carrying more than 10,000 German civilians, military personnel and Nazi officers evacuating from East Prussia. The ship was sunk in the Baltic Sea on January 30th, 1945 by a Russian submarine. 9,400 passengers died making the sinking the largest maritime disaster in history. Only 1,252 passengers were rescued.

After finishing this book, I asked a question of several friends who enjoy studying history like I do. I asked "Without using the internet or any outside sources, what do you know about the Wilhelm Gustloff.''  They all had the same answer. "Nothing.''

I find that chilling. It truly is correct what they say: History is written by the victors. While it is true that the Wilhelm Gusloff and its passengers were victims of war and millions died during WWII, how can the deaths of thousands of civilians be virtually forgotten because it was a German ship that also carried Nazi officers and German soldiers?

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys is a historical fiction novel about a group of evacuees who walk many, many miles in the bitter cold to the port at Gotenhafen and board the Wilhelm Gustloff. The story shifts between the points of view of four characters: Joanna, a nurse; Emelia, a 15-year old Polish girl; Florian, a Prussian; and Alfred, a German soldier. There are also several colorful supporting characters: a boy they find wandering alone, a cobbler who says shoes tell the story of a person, and a large, very outspoken woman. As the characters trek to the port and then board the ship, they relate not only the story of the evacuation, but also reveal parts of their past, the effects of war, and thoughts of friends and family they have lost.

I listened to the audiobook version of this novel. It was full cast, and the production value was wonderful. As I listened, I felt that I got to know each character. I sympathized with all but one of them. And I found myself dreading the moment when they were all going to face possible death at sea.

The story is amazing.....and deeply disturbing. I can't believe I never had any clue that this disaster even occurred. I can only imagine how horrible it was for the thousands of men, women and children who believed they were being taken to safety, only to drown in the freezing cold ocean.

While Sepetys book is based on the true event, the characters in the book are fiction. But, it does paint an emotional picture of what evacuees went through and how frightened they must have been. Many died, freezing to death in the snow, before they even made it to the port to be evacuated. They were afraid of the approaching Russian troops, so they trudged through freezing temperatures and snow to get to the port, hoping to get a spot on a ship. The Wilhelm Gustoff was crammed with more than 10,000 passengers when it was only designed for about 1,900 maximum. I can't even imagine the sheer terror they must have felt when the 3 torpedoes slammed into the ship. Less than 40 minutes after it was struck, the ship sank. Only 1,252 survivors were rescued.

Salt to the Sea is an emotional, eye-opening story. So many lives lost....and then virtually forgotten.

I'm glad I learned the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Salt to the Sea is beautifully written and a wonderful tribute to the people who lost their lives in this tragic event.

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