I remember watching “Titanic” for the first time and refusing to get sucked in by Jack, Rose and their brief but ill-fated romance (though I did shed a tear for the brave string quartet, who serenaded the sinking ship with a dignified rendition of “Nearer, my God, to Thee”) because the ending was a foregone conclusion.
So when I read the book jacket for Salt to the Sea, about the actual worst maritime disaster that I had never heard of, I wondered how author Ruta Septys would tell the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff in a way that would escape the feeling of inevitability without actually escaping the inevitable.
Septys kept things lively by dedicating a good part of the story to the dynamics between three of the four POV characters as they journey from somewhere frozen in Prussia to the equally frigid port where the Wilhelm Gustloff and the fourth character await.
For Joana, a young Lithuanian nurse separated from her family–pay attention to who her relatives are–guilt is a hunter.
For Florian, a disillusioned Prussian teenager on a secret high stakes mission, fate is a hunter.
For Emilia, a Polish girl caught between the Germans and the Russians, shame is a hunter.
For Alfred, a sailor on the Wilhelm Gustloff desperate to prove himself to the girl next door and to the Third Reich, fear is a hunter.
In every case, the simile is apt. At first, I thought I’d have trouble keeping track of who is fleeing what from which country, but Sepetys skillfully juggles between Joana, Florian, Emilia and Alfred, four teenagers swept up by fate or design in a massive war, each with their own distinct personalities, backgrounds, motivations and secrets.
By the time our protagonists reach the Wilhelm Gustloff, the ship on which thousands of retreating German soldiers and refugees are crammed aboard to escape the oncoming Russian army, I’ve very invested in what will happen to Joana, Florian, Emilia and their traveling companions. Will they be allowed on to the same ship, even though the ship is doomed?
In getting to know the characters, I also learned more about the historical relationships between the Germans, the Russians and the Slavic and Baltic nations caught in between. The fact that I’d read Symphony for the City of the Dead–about the German siege of Leningrad and the no-holds-bar way that Russia fought back–prior to reading Salt to the Sea also helped me understand the geopolitical situation. (I suggest pairing the two if you want to forego happiness for awhile.)
However, having read Sepetys’ earlier book, Between Shades of Gray, I knew from the get-go that though the chances of a happy ending were slim to none, readers can count on Septys to end on a hopeful note to slightly temper the otherwise crushing despair of the horrible historically-accurate events that her characters endure.
This brings me to my one quibble with this book: the abrupt ending. As with Between Shades of Gray, the denouement in Salt to the Sea arrives a bit too early. One of the main characters asks questions about identity and the future, and then the chronology skips ahead two and a half decades to tie up the loose ends.
In a way, this time jump feels like a deliberate distancing of these fictitious characters, temporarily alive in the present day of my mind, back to their historical past. In a way, it feels abrupt because I’ve grown fond of these characters (except one) and I’m not ready to part with them just yet.