You all know the story of the Titanic (at the very least, you know the movie) – the British ship that sunk in 1912 after colliding with an iceberg, killing over 1,500 people. You might have heard of the Lusitania – the British ocean liner torpedoed by the Germans in 1915, killing almost 1,200 people on board as it sank. But you probably haven’t heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff. At least, I hadn’t.
Which is absolutely insane, because the estimated number of people who died in the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 was over 9,400 people. Picture the terrible, gut-wrenching scenes from the Titanic movie where people are screaming, crying, tumbling off the deck, flailing in life jackets, freezing in the icy waters – and then multiply that six times.
It is a travesty that people, particularly in the U.S., do not know about the sinking of a ship that resulted in the largest loss of life of any ship sinkings in history.
So now that I’ve made my point, if you too have never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff, go read Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys.
This book made it onto my 2018 Reading List by way of the office book club. I actually postponed reading it for a little bit after we picked it, because I was already reading Turtles All the Way Down and because I honestly wasn’t sure if it would be my kind of book. When I was younger I used to read more historical fiction. I went through phases of reading about the Holocaust and American slavery. But I haven’t been too into that genre lately.
But I will be the first to tell you that I really loved this book. I loved the style, the multi-character first person narration, the quick chapters that kept me turning pages, the suspense, and the slow revelation of each character’s secrets. I loved every bit of it. I finished it and immediately sent a message to a co-worker to make sure she knew how much I enjoyed it.
I will start by saying, though, that the quick flipping between characters confused me at first. I almost thought that there were too many characters to write in that particular style, where each of them gets a rotating chapter of their own narration. It’s also personally frustrating when I just start to get to know a character and then the chapter ends and I’m left hanging while we rotate through the rest of them. But that does make me read faster.
In this book, the characters we are introduced to are evacuating Germany during WWII. They have different backgrounds, different nationalities even, but they are fleeing for safety, trying to make their way to the port of Gofenhafen where ships are taking refugees away from the conflict.
Joana, Florian, Emilia, and Alfred all have their own back story, and their own secrets.
I love Joana. She’s strong and fierce but so kind and compassionate. Emilia seems so fragile and dainty and child-like. I wanted to scream at her and tell her to stop following Florian around like a lost puppy. I couldn’t understand her attachment to him and her insistence on thinking of him as a white knight in shining armor. But that’s because I got to see into the head of Florian and he felt like a trickster. He was deceitful in many ways and I never got the feeling that he actually wanted to help anyone – he kind of just accidentally helped them. And Alfred was annoying right from the start, as likely intended. I hated him and his story, which was all made up in his mind. He seemed like someone who actually had a mental illness, but what was sickening was that by the end, you realize that Nazi Germany must have been full of people like Alfred.
Through these characters, their intense personalities, the insight into their history and families and dreams, the book brings one of the many side stories of WWII to life. This is a story you haven’t learned in middle school. This is the story of all the people who weren’t war heroes, weren’t in concentration camps, weren’t hoisting guns, weren’t in the trenches, and weren’t pinning stars to their clothes. But they were real. They were victims of war, running from death and rape and destruction, despite the fact that they lived in Germany and were innocent citizens. That is the story that I never heard growing up.
I was glad I didn’t read too much about this book before I started it. I hadn’t really paid attention to the synopsis and I didn’t look it up on Goodreads. So every moment and every chapter, I was in suspense.
I don’t want to ruin it for you. This book is worth it.