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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1072

Author: Ruta Sepetys (b. 1967)

First published: 2016

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical fiction

Time of plot: 1945

Locales: East Prussia; Baltic Sea

Principal characters

Joana Vilkas, a nurse from Lithuania

Florian Beck, an East Prussian art restorer

Emilia Stożek, a pregnant Polish teen

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(The entire section contains 1072 words.)

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Author: Ruta Sepetys (b. 1967)

First published: 2016

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical fiction

Time of plot: 1945

Locales: East Prussia; Baltic Sea

Principal characters

Joana Vilkas, a nurse from Lithuania

Florian Beck, an East Prussian art restorer

Emilia Stożek, a pregnant Polish teen

Alfred Frick, a German sailor

The Story

Published by Ruta Sepetys in 2016, Salt to the Sea is a work of historical fiction set near the end of World War II. The novel begins in early 1945, as the Russian army (known as the Red Army) is moving west toward Germany. At the start of the novel, a group of refugees that includes Lithuanian nurse Joana is traveling through East Prussia, bound for a port where they hope to board one of several ships that will carry evacuees away from the region. Along the way, the group is joined by two more refugees, Florian and Emilia, each of whom has secrets. Florian, a trained art restorer and native East Prussian, is carrying forged papers claiming that he has been sent on a secret mission by Nazi leader Gauleiter Koch but who is in fact smuggling an artistic treasure prized by German leader Adolf Hitler out of the country. Emilia, on the other hand, is hiding the fact that she is Polish. Meanwhile, as the refugees make their way through the cold, dangerous landscape, a young German sailor named Alfred Frick is preparing to be assigned to one of the ships that will be used in the evacuation. A cowardly and lazy young man, he spends much of his time hiding in bathrooms and closets and composing mental letters to his beloved Hannelore, a girl from his past.Courtesy of Penguin Young Readers

The refugees find shelter in an abandoned manor house, where Joana and Florian are shocked to learn that Emilia is eight months pregnant. She tells them that she is on her way to meet her boyfriend, August, who is the father of the child; however, much later in the novel she reveals that she had been raped by Russian soldiers. When the group leaves the manor house, they realize from the number of travelers on the road that evacuation orders had finally been issued, and they join the large procession of refugees heading to the port. Meanwhile, Alfred works to prepare his assigned ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, to receive its passengers. He notes that ten of the ship's lifeboats are missing and further observes that the ship's furniture is being removed to make room for more people.

As the refugees cross a frozen lagoon, Russian planes arrive and shoot the ice, causing some refugees in the group to drown. Joana, Emilia, Florian, and their group are able to take a boat the rest of the way to the port, as the German officers they encounter are fooled by Florian's forged paperwork. Once they arrive at the port, the refugees' stories intersect with that of Alfred, who is impressed by Florian's supposed authority. Alfred introduces Joana to the doctor who will be on board the Wilhelm Gustloff, ensuring her a place aboard as a nurse, and helps Florian, Emilia, and the others gain passage on the ship. The refugees board the Wilhelm Gustloff, where Emilia goes into labor, eventually giving birth to a girl whom she names Halinka.

After more than ten thousand passengers have boarded the Wilhelm Gustloff, the boat sets sail for Kiel, Germany. When the ship is twenty-five nautical miles offshore, however, a Russian submarine attacks, shooting three torpedoes at the ship. The ship quickly begins to tilt and sink, and the thousands of evacuees on board desperately try to escape. Amid the chaos, Joana and Florian board a lifeboat along with baby Halinka, while Emilia and Alfred narrowly escape on a raft. Emilia carries Florian's pack, which contains the treasure he is trying to keep out of Hitler's hands—an amber swan that was once part of a Russian treasure known as the Amber Room. On the raft, Alfred becomes delirious, and his final mental letter to Hannelore reveals that she was a half-Jewish girl who was taken away by the Nazis after Alfred told the Hitler Youth about her Jewish father. When he learns that Emilia is Polish, he attempts to kill her by pushing her off the raft, but he ultimately falls into the water and dies himself. A rescue ship approaches Joana and Florian's lifeboat, and the survivors are able to climb aboard. Although Florian falls into the water while climbing, he miraculously resurfaces and climbs to safety. The novel's conclusion, set more than two decades later, reveals that Joana and Florian are married and have adopted Halinka and another survivor named Klaus as their own. Emilia died on the raft and washed up on the shore, and the couple that found her later buried the amber swan at Florian's request.

Critical Evaluation

As a work of historical fiction, Salt to the Sea sheds light on a historical event—the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff—that is relatively unknown to many American readers. The novel's subject matter is consistent with author Ruta Sepetys's body of work, which also includes the historical novels Between Shades of Gray (2011) and Out of the Easy (2013). The former novel is in fact directly connected to Salt to the Sea, as it features the character of Joana in a small role. Through its alternating perspectives and numerous short chapters, Salt to the Sea provides a variety of viewpoints on the hardships of World War II in Eastern Europe, calling attention to aspects of the war, such as the Russian persecution of Lithuanians and the fraught political status of East Prussia, that are less commonly discussed. At the same time, the humanity and relatability of the novel's young protagonists further highlight just how terrible the events they experience were. Although two of the four protagonists survive and seem to find relative happiness, the novel is ultimately a tragic one, reflecting the horrors of all-encompassing war.

Further Reading

  • Anderson, M. T. Review of Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys. The New York Times, 12 Feb. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/books/review/salt-to-the-sea-by-ruta-sepetys.html. Accessed 28 Feb. 2017.
  • Review of Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys. Publishers Weekly, 9 Nov. 2015, www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-399-16030-1. Accessed 28 Feb. 2017.
  • Sepetys, Ruta. "More Died on This WWII Ship Than on the Titanic and Lusitania Combined." NPR Books, 17 Feb. 2016, www.npr.org/2016/02/17/466924137/more-died-on-this-wwii-ship-than-on-the-titanic-and-lusitania-combined. Accessed 28 Feb. 2017.
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