Review: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
By Kay Waddilove
Salt to the Sea is a historical YA novel set in the closing months of World War II. As with her debut Between Shades of Gray (2011), previously shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, Ruta Sepetys weaves a fictional narrative around an actual, but little-known historical event. In the final months of the Nazi regime a multitude of refugees, both civilians and soldiers, fled from the advancing Soviet army to the Baltic Sea ports in the hope of boarding a ship to safety, and escaping the chaos of war-torn Europe. Several German ships were conscripted for this evacuation, dubbed Operation Hannibal, including the Wilhelm Gustloff, a large cruise liner designed for around 1400 passengers. Approximately ten and a half thousand refugees were loaded onto this ship, which, on 30 January 1945, was hit by Russian torpedoes. It sank in less than one hour, in a snowstorm, and approximately 9000 people died, over half of them children.
As Sepetys informs the reader in her postscript, this sinking was “the deadliest disaster in maritime history”, with a death toll exceeding those of the Titanic and Lusitania combined, yet it is a tragedy that is virtually unknown outside Germany. As a writer committed to shining an ideological light onto such “hidden chapters of history” through “the child and young adult narrative” (Between Shades of Gray did this for the plight of Lithuanian deportees to Siberian labour camps), Sepetys explores the event from the different perspectives of a group of young protagonists. The refugees came from Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and the author builds her story around four contrasted fictional characters: Joana, a young Lithuanian nurse; Emilia, a Polish teenager; Florian, a Prussian art preservationist; and Alfred, a punctilious Nazi soldier. They all have a secret; carrying their guilt, their fate, their shame, or their fear – or perhaps all four – as psychological burdens which they describe as “hunters” in the opening chapters.
The story unfolds through the individual narration of each of the four protagonists, progressing in rapidly alternating chapters. The chapters are very brief, rarely running to more than three pages, and are dominated by passages of dialogue; they move the narrative forward in a speedy chronological sequence, while only gradually revealing the backstories and concealed secrets of the four characters. The short chapters and the utilisation of split narrative voices, alongside a combination of direct and indirect address within the first-person accounts, makes the novel remarkably accessible, while also employing subtle applications of the unreliable narrator technique to both engage and challenge the implied reader. Notwithstanding its historical accuracy, this is untimately a character-driven text, and the rounded constructions of Joana, Emilia, and Florian emerge slowly but effectively to convey Sepetys’ explicit ideological message of the horror and cruelties of war; a message which is further confirmed in the author’s inscribed ideology of language and imagery. The spare, and thus all the more harrowing descriptions of the final scenes on the doomed ship – a mother hurling her baby into the sea in an unsuccessful rescue attempt, children floating upside-down in life-jackets because of the weight of their disproportionally large heads – are particularly effective in being taken from the writer’s extensive historical research. Secondary characters such as the Shoe Poet, Eva, Ingrid, and Klaus are also skillfully drawn and make a significant contribution to the ideological complexity of the narrative. The delineation of Alfred, as a fanatical, Hitler-worshippiing Nazi who is also a sociopath, a peeping-Tom and riddled with a horrible skin disorder, is somewhat less successful. As a counterpoint to the Prussian Florian, who comes to realise the naivety of his former indoctrination, Alfred – ripping the eyes out of a child’s teddy bear, and a life-belt from a drowning woman – is a caricature whose ultimate fate, incurred while chanting a racist poem, has the inevitability of a nineteenth-century cautionary tale.
The post-scriptural final chapter, which brings the timescale forward twenty-four years, is also less than satisfying; although it does tie up loose ends in a positive fashion, I was left wanting either more detail, or much less. The chapter describes an extraordinarily unlikely coincidence, and despite my personal love of happy endings, I question whether an uncertain outcome might have been more appropriate to the overall tone of the story. These are, however, minor criticisms of a powerful and moving novel which interweaves its stories of friendship and betrayal, courage and cowardice, identity and awareness into a subtle but unflinching account of horrifying realities, while also conveying the banality of war, which, for its young victims, had “bled colour from everything, leaving nothing but a storm of gray.”
Ruta Sepetys is an award-winning Lithuanian-American author, whose father spent nine years in European refugee camps. Her interest in the Wilhelm Gustloff tragedy was aroused by her father’s cousin, who, having been prevented from boarding for the disastrous voyage, begged Sepetys to “give a voice” to the others. The writer undertook extensive research, detailed in her Author’s Note, and encourages the young reader to explore further, providing meticulously detailed maps, research sources, and links to institutions. In interviews, Sepetys has asserted strongly that such ‘hidden history’ should be made known, so that lessons can be learned from the past, and that reading is a powerful conduit for such a process: “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.”
In common with much recent publishing for young readers, Salt to the Sea deals with matters such as violence, cruelty, and unrelieved tragedy once considered entirely unsuitable for a young audience, even those of the chronologically ill-defined YA genre. Nevertheless, scanning just a fraction of the 106 pages of reviews of the title on the Carnegie website, it is clear that Sepetys has been overwhelmingly successful in inviting her readership into a thoughtful engagement with this text. Most of the reviews are positive, some exceptionally so, with comments such as: “a magnificent book that really gave the reader an insight”; “the plot and characters were amazing”; “the plot was engaging, the characters were well developed and the setting was vivid and brutal”; “every page is like a knife”. There are many perceptive comments on the beauty of the author’s language, and the most notable reader response overall is that of affective involvement: “I haven’t cried this much about a book for a very long time!”, “As a reader you were really given a chance to care about the four main protagonists”, and – genre-conversion being a real hallmark of success for the YA writer, surely the ultimate accolade – “Salt to the Sea has been the first historic book, which I have genuinely been sucked into the storyline, and struggled to put down.”
In a year of extremely strong contenders for the Carnegie Medal, Salt to the Sea has been a worthy winner; it is, as required by the award criteria, “a book of outstanding literary quality for young people”, yet also, as several literary reviewers have commented, has much to offer to a wider readership. Most importantly, it meets the criteria of a work that “should provide pleasure, not merely from the surface enjoyment of a good read, but also the deeper subconscious satisfaction of having gone through a vicarious, but at the time of reading, a real experience that is retained afterwards” (Carnegie award criteria). The (almost) final words then, confirming this successful achievment, go to two young reader-reviewers; 14 year-old Chloe who “found it quite hard to lock into to begin with, [but] I just have a little twitchey feeling that Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys is going to be one of those books that sticks in my mind for a long, long time…” and 11 year-old Nathan who writes that, “This is one of those books that make me experience every word. …This is definitely my favourite book so far. Read it.” I would certainly second that.
The Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at the University of Roehampton to discuss the shortlists, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. We are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group is coordinated by NCRCL MA students Judy Digby and Nicki Oakes-Monger.