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Salt to the Sea

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Feb 11, 2022

Salt to the Sea is a 2016 historical fiction young adult novel by Ruta Sepetys (book cover illustration and design by Matt Jones i UK). It tells the story of four individuals in World War II who make their way to the ill-fated MV Wilhelm Gustloff. The story also touches on the disappearance of the Amber Room, a world-famous, ornately decorated chamber stolen by the Nazis that has never been recovered.

Young adult novel by Ruta Sepetys
This article needs additional citations for verification. (March 2016)
Salt to the Sea

First edition (US)
Author Ruta Sepetys
Country United States
Language English
Genre Historical Fiction
Publisher Philomel Books (US)
Penguin Books (UK)
Publication date
2016
Media type Print
Pages 391
ISBN

9780141347400

Sepetys was awarded the 2017 Carnegie Medal, the UK’s most prestigious children’s book award, for Salt to the Sea.[1]

. . . Salt to the Sea . . .

Sepetys wanted to write about an element of World War II that had been forgotten. She writes in her Author’s Note for the novel that even though the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is the deadliest maritime disaster in history, “remarkably, most people have never heard of it.” She continues writing: “Every nation has hidden history, countless stories preserved only by those who experienced them. Stories of war are often read and discussed worldwide by readers whose nations stood on opposite sides during battle. History divided us, but through reading we can be united in story, study, and remembrance. Books join us together as a global reading community, but more important, a global human community striving to learn from the past.”[2]

Sepetys is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee. She told the Chicago Tribune[3] that after she wrote Between Shades of Gray, which was inspired by the history of Lithuania, that her father’s cousin told her she should write the story of the “Wilhelm Gustloff.” In an interview with NPR Sepetys also shared that her father’s cousin had a ticket to board the Wilhelm Gustoff. However, she was ultimately unable to board the ship. Sepetys father’s cousin wanted the story to be told as a way to give a voice to those who lost their lives on the Ship.[4] Sepetys goes on to say, “And I was fascinated by the story, wondering why it is that some parts of history penetrate our collective consciousness, and others remain hidden?”

She also told the Tribune[3] that she wanted to write the story from the refugees’ point of view. She says, “The concept of “refugee” is something frightening, it’s something foreign. So I wanted to write from that point of view, which is why I have four alternating main characters, all young people from different nations, seeing life from four different cultural lenses on this refugee trek.”

Salt to the Sea takes place in East Prussia in 1945. The book follows four central characters as they evacuate their home countries: Emilia, a teenage, Polish orphan;  Florian, a restoration artist from East Prussia; Joana, a Lithuanian nurse; and Alfred, a Nazi.

Emilia and Florian meet when Florian saves Emilia from a Russian soldier. The couple runs into Joana as she is traveling with a group of refugees. Everyone is attempting to make it to West Germany to board ships and save their own lives.

Throughout the journey to the evacuation ships, the refugees get to know one another. It is revealed that Emilia is eight months pregnant from an assault by Russian soldiers; Florian, the restoration artist, is on the run for stealing a piece of art of the Amber Room; and Joana feels responsible for some of the deaths of her family. By the time the group reaches the evacuation ships, their relationships are solidified. It is clear that Joana and Florian have fallen in love, and Emilia sees Florian as a symbol for good men.

At this point, the group comes into contact with Alfred who is their only hope for getting tickets to the boats. They board the Wilhelm Gustoff.

While on the boat the story progresses. Emilia gives birth; Joana works as a nurse; Florian hides from Nazis who are looking for him. One day, Russian torpedoes hit the Wilhelm Gustoff. Quickly, the ship sinks and thousands die. However, Joana, Florian, and Emilia’s baby are able to escape on a lifeboat along with a boy named Klaus. Emilia, on the other hand, finds herself on a different lifeboat with Alfred, the Nazi. It comes to light that Emilia is Polish and the Nazi attempts to kill her. Ultimately, both Emilia and Alfred perish.

The book concludes with a glimpse into the future. Joana and Florian live in the United States. They have Emilia’s baby, the boy Klaus, and a child of their own. Through a letter sent by Clara Christensen, a Danish woman, it is told that Emilia’s body was found washed up on a shore, and she was buried.

. . . Salt to the Sea . . .

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. . . Salt to the Sea . . .