Life & Style Editor Saskia Hirst reviews the ‘chilling to the bone and catastrophically heartbreaking’ novel Salt to the Sea: a historical fiction following four characters on the Wilhelm Gustloff – the greatest tragedy in maritime history

Written by Saskia Hirst
3rd year English Lit student. Lover of books and Life&Style editor <3
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Content Warning: This article contains themes of World War II, refugees, maritime disaster, dictatorship, death, Nazis, the Red Army.

“When I close my eyes, I can still see the children who had been thrown overboard in their life jackets. Their heads under the water, their little feet sticking in the air— and I hear their mother’s screams. a Wilhelm Gustloff survivor

Chilling to the bone, harrowing and catastrophically heartbreaking: The Salt to the Sea is a thrilling, genius novel in Ruta Sepetys thorough, nuanced, and brilliantly executed collection of novels – and the companion to the haunting Between Shades of Grey. Sepetys novels’ caressing warmth ties readers into a false sense of bliss before the shattering, heart-wrenching reality of refugee life is unveiled. This facade of hope and the dystopian sense of humanity decaying has an unsettling parallel in today’s world, as much as it does in the semi-fictional setting of World War II. A story of strength through struggle; as the daughter of a refugee herself, Sepetys weaves the brutal and the beautiful into a story that is hidden in history.

Like letters in a bottle thrown into the sea by civilians hoping future generations will voice their silenced stories, Ruta Sepetys not only voices the perils of an often neglected dark side of World War II history; she also champions and condemns humanity — both the loving and tyrannical kind, cuts through cynical realities of new beginnings in wartime, and combines the eery and the dismal of the shadows of a haunted past. The Salt to the Sea is a tragic blend of what Titanic tried to be, but never quite was, and a hard-hitting war story from the perspective of the innocent.

The Salt to the Sea is a tragic blend of what Titanic tried to be, but never quite was, and a hard-hitting war story from the perspective of the innocent

By placing her readers in the bleak footsteps of Stalin’s refugees in the bitter winter of 1945, where omnipotent readers know the sinister truth that the war was near ends’ meet, Ruth Sepetys shatters hope and unwraps a traumatic heartbreak in the hearts of both the characters and readers. At the very same time, Sepetys shifts society’s prejudicial attitudes towards refugees without being overly didactic. If the words ‘Wilhelm Gustloff’— or ‘the Ghost Ship’— do not haunt you yet, they soon will. 

One ship: the only hope of freedom, warmth, and happiness – the characters’ dream of escape. So close in touch, but their hopes slip through their fingers; lying in wait in the depths of the freezing Baltic Sea is a soviet submarine. 60 minutes, three torpedoes, 9,343 lives perished: the greatest Maritime disaster in history, each passenger with a story erased from history. 

The tale follows an unlikely, disjointed group of people who find their fates interwoven in a desperate search for freedom from the Soviet Union: Joana, a Lithuanian girl; Emilia, a Polish girl; Florian, an East Prussian boy; and the recluse psyche in the novel, Alfred, who is distant from the group as a young German Nazi sailor. He is a figure that could be seen as an enemy, but this reading of him flattens out the ambiguities of the enemy theme throughout the novel. 

On the theme of the enemy, showcasing humanity at the hands of an iron fist, Sepetys teases out what an ‘enemy’ is and ferociously challenges the uncomfortable lens of history which is told from the winners. Sepetys does not allow the allies to wist by unscathed by scrutiny. Questioning whether the enemy is the modern world of weapons and mass destruction (symbolised by the torpedo), Stalin, Hitler, mankind, or fate.

Sepetys teases out what an ‘enemy’ is and ferociously challenges the uncomfortable lens of history which is told from the winners

But what makes Sepetys’ writing so rich is that no one direct analysis fits the mould. The answer is left ambiguous, which resonates quite delicately with a history which is often re-written depending on the country and time frame — and the winners. Sepetys reminds us there is no true winner in war and that with darkness lying on both sides, the enemy is not a binary, despite the Allies’ sense of victory and justice on being on the ‘right’ side of history, yet sweeping the horrors of the Soviet Union under the rug. Sepetys reminds us that the allies were also an enemy to refugees.  

Sepetys teases out the complications of Eastern Europe, fleeing from war on two fronts between two equally tyrannic dictators: Stalin on one side, Hitler on the other — and the civilians in between fighting at first for their country’s history, culture, and perseverance, and then for their lives as both Hilter and Stalin wished to invade each other for continental power, pillaging towns and assassinating innocent people, leaving behind a graveyard of buried hopes and dreams. 

In the multi-cultural lens of the novel, Sepetys dilapidates the boundaries of wars, patriotism and the ‘us versus them’ phenomenon, unfolding the enemy, if there is a definitive enemy in the novel, to be mankind itself. ‘Us versus them’ becomes increasingly harder to distinguish, and as perspectives blend, morality on both sides is questioned, and duty, whilst nightmarish, becomes eerily understandable in the barbaric regimen Alfred is expected to serve. 

In the frenzy of war, people are people

Sepetys suggests that in the frenzy of war, people are people — the land Hitler and Stalin cared so much about for money, power, and glory left refugees having to abandon tethers to their homelands, identity, and culture — but that sacrifice and trauma leads to uncanny paths of found families and a spark of hope. But in this facade of a safety net, all is soon shattered. Promises cannot be kept, tragedy looms over the fates of refugees in war, and hope in times of dismal fate as well as what human connection is even possible when humanity attacks itself is carefully thought out.

By reversing the trope of the ‘soldier’ figure and focusing instead on nuancing the perspective of a war story by giving voice to innocent refugees searching for their families, Sepetys encourages a plethora of warmth, heart and compassion which is just as precious to the global humanitarian circumstances ongoing today, which are equally as silenced.

On the themes of love, war, and hate, the ‘salt’ to the ‘sea’ inevitably seals its fate a metaphor and motif for evil in humanity

The personal touch of Sepetys family fleeing from Russia facilitates a ghostly atmosphere in the novel, where the truth of stories is even closer to home for the author, whose aunt would have boarded the Wilhelm Gustloff if fate hadn’t intervened. Turning the tides and chapters of the novel, salt is bitter — and on the themes of love, war, and hate, the ‘salt’ to the ‘sea’ inevitably seals its fate a metaphor and motif for evil in humanity: the salt as bitter, horrific terrain of mankind’s experience, which are inseparable from human nature itself; and the sea as a burial ground for covering up human atrocities and erasing these stories from history.

The chilling story of strength and hopelessness inspires compassion for others’ freedom, igniting a fire in a reader’s soul to help those who are stuck and hopeless. Stories are a way of connecting, empathising and uplifting humanity in the darkest of hours. Lifting the bottles from the water, Sepetys brings the heartbreaking tales of refugees to life in an emotive, chilling narrative that haunts and yet inspires. 

Trigger and Content Warnings for Salt to the Sea: World War II, refugees, gore, maritime disaster (drowning), dictatorship, sexual assault and rape, death, Nazis, the Red Army.

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