My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The title and cover of Salt to the Sea focus on the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, so I guess talking about it doesn't count as a spoiler. It was, according to Wikipedia, “the deadliest maritime disaster in history.” I was surprised that such a major tragedy has gotten so little recognition in accounts of World War II. 9,400 people died, many of them children. I suppose the reason this disaster is not recalled as often as other catastrophes is due to the fact that these people were mostly German citizens and countries that lose wars don't get to write history.
The other historic event that plays a major role in the plot of Salt to the Sea is the looting of art by the Nazis. The book focuses on The Amber Room, a major collection of priceless art in, again according to Wikipedia, a “chamber decorated in amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors.” One of the book's major characters, Florian Beck, was working for Germany as an art expert. After discovering that he had been misled about the purpose of his work, he ran, taking with him a priceless swan, which was Hitler's favorite.
Despite the fascinating historic events Ruta Sepetys included in her novel, its greatest strength is the relationships of the characters. Florian encounters, Emilia Stożeka, a young Polish girl who is trying to escape the advancing Russians by making her way west. Emilia follows Florian and they soon encounter a group of refugees also trying to escape the Russians. Florian is on the run, so he's trying his best not to make friendships that might tie him down, but he finds it impossible not to like and respect most of the people he's traveling with. His relationships with Emilia and with Joana Vilkaitė are the most interesting, but the "shoe poet" is also a great character.
Salt to the Sea is from the perspective of innocent civilians caught in a defeated country. Since the plot is about desperate people running for their lives, there's plenty of tension and action. This makes for an exciting read. Another of my favorites about this time period is Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian.
Steve Lindahl – author of Hopatcong Vision Quest, White Horse Regressions, and Motherless Soul
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