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David, Chobham Academy Book Group

Salt to the Sea

The book Salt to the Sea is a historical fiction masterpiece composed by author Ruta Sepetys, an experienced writer in this genre, with previous Carnegie nominations such as the award winning "Between Shades of Grey". The compelling nature of the book is exemplified by the first person perspective; which is shared between the four supposed protagonists of the tale. The novel is set on the Baltic coast of German occupied Poland, and explores themes of fear and oppression of the era, mixed with the relationship construction of strangers under stress.

The authors choice to narrate the novel through alternating outlooks is powerful as it adds suspense for each character in the interlude therebetween, in which another viewpoint is explored and advances the story further - perhaps even adding another layer of tension. This change of viewpoint is done expertly, and hardly ever leaves the reader confused over what has occurred/is happening. (Although in the infamous sinking scene things get a bit confusing and distorted, yet having said that this may have been a tool employed by the author to portray the horror and stupefaction of the environment).

Although it is never strictly mentioned during the novel the work is set around the Pomeranian Voivodeship (province) of Poland, specifically near the city of Gdingen (natively Gdynia but at the time of Nazi occupied Poland it would have been referred to thusly). The book is also set in 1945, in the winter cold of January. By this point into the war many soldiers had become tired of fighting for any cause, and just wanted the war to end. This is a fact that Sepetys uses in the book, showing that the German soldiers are human, and worth the same as the heroes of the tale, despite the ethnic disagreements of the period.
In the book the story is divided between four people:
Joana Vilkas: A young Lithuanian nurse fleeing from East Prussia. She repatriated to Nazi Germany with her family in 1941 to evade capture from the Soviet Russian forces, yet inadvertently leads these forces to capture relatives of hers. She struggles to live down the guilt she feels for their certain demise.
Florian Beck: A young Prussian apprentice in possession of a valuable amber swan that he stole from the Nazi captured Amber Room artwork after discovering that his forging skills were put to use as a puppet for Koch and Hitler.
Emilia Stożek: As a fifteen year old Polish girl from Lwów Emilia finds it hard to understand the war, as is shown by her almost childlike interpretation of things. A major twist in the book is when the reader discovers she is pregnant (although some hints exist through the chapters.). Yet another twist is when it is revealed she was not impregnated by the hand of her supposed lover but was raped by a Russian soldier. She gives birth to her daughter, Halinka, on the Wilhelm Gustloff ship, whom she hands over to Florian during the evacuation before dying and being washed up in Bornholm, Denmark.
Alfred Frick: An eager young German sailor who adheres to Hitler's propaganda and thinks grandly of himself. Often he is found composing mental letters to Hannelore Jäger, a girl he has a creepy obsession with. Later it is revealed that he reported her Jewish father to the army and she is carted away. Although the book's tone is used to make the reader dislike Alfred one can pity him slightly. It can be judged that he has a mental condition, and at the time this wasn't recognized, so Alfred received no help. One can deduce this by Alfred's susceptibility to propaganda, just like radicalisation today. Also the inflated ego of the man is a sign of mental difference, for he is a bullied man because of it and has few friends (this is also shown in the bitterness in his mental letters when referring to the hostility of the Hitlers youth in his childhood). The mental letters are another clue, he lives and thrives in a world of his own- and only grudgingly replies a short letter to his mother in reality when he is forced to by one from her. His fascination with the song he composed of Hitlers degenerates- this itself a pattern reminiscent of madness. Finally his obsession with butterflies is a hint that he has issues; yet it is also foreshadowing for the Hannelore ordeal- he loves them but when he tries to own them they leave him and become imprisoned [and die].

The period and setting that the book revolves around is very interesting, as it is one generally ignored. The year 1945, is generally regarded as the end of the second world war, and that is often the point in history people will assimilate with it if given the year to write about. Instead Sepetys focused on the sinking of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, the single most deadly marine disaster (in terms of loss of life) ever. The sinking of the ship cost over 9,400 lives, compared with the 1,500 from the sinking of the far more famous Titanic. There are many reasons that this sinking was not as famous, for one the boat was on the wrong side of history, with it being part of the Nazi parties fleet (although strictly it was a requisitioned cruise ship).

The main themes present in this book are unequivocally that of desperation and the panic of the war. Through the journey to the city there is the constant threat of the Russians, which are made out to be horrible and heartless demons, craving only watches and women. I found that having read it quickly the first time there was a similar unenthusiastic view of the Germaan troops, yet on closer examination the German army is only described neutrally. This I found interesting, for I assume in this Western world of specifically England, we have become so used to hearing of the atrocities committed by Germany in the war that we automatically assume that onto the face of fictional beings from that era.

In conclusion I found the book Salt to the Sea to be a visceral gem of a historical fiction, with an interesting writing portrayal through the first person viewpoint of the four people. The characters were very easy to empathise with and you quickly finding yourself connecting to them (I fell in love with the portrayal and description of 'the shoe poet', and the different viewpoints of his character were a pleasant touch). With a poignant end in the form of a letter I would definitely recommend this book to anyone, as long as they are mature enough to cope with some of the adult themes explored in it.

Posted on: 17th April 2017 at 12:36 am

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