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Dominic, Our Lady's Abingdon (OLA)

Salt to the Sea

I love books with maps. That was my first impression of Salt to the Sea, followed by me hoping I would love the rest of the book. So I picked up the book and started reading. Every two pages or so, it changes the point of view of four different young adults, which the author keeps up through the novel. Not many writers can pull off a changing first person, but Ruta Sepetys does it well, without me wondering whose point of view it was again.

This book is set in East Prussia and Poland, in 1945. The Germans are losing and three of the four protagonists are searching for a safe place to go. They need to reach a harbour so they can embark any one of the boats there, including the Wilhelm Gustloff. This novel is about their long journey and their time on the Wilhelm Gustloff. The first lines of the first four chapters are:

Guilt is a hunter.
Fate is a hunter.
Shame is a hunter.
Fear is a hunter.

These lines are repeated again at the climax of the story. These are potent lines, which throw you into the book. When they are repeated again, the words create a link back with the character they were at the start of the book and the character they are at the end. It woke me up, and helped me to evaluate their personality and how they have changed since I last read those lines. It is definitely one of the most moving and thoughtful books I have ever read.

As I have already mentioned, the book is written from four points of view:

Joana. Originally from Birzai, in Lithuania, Joanna escapes from the Russians, flooding her homeland with their influence and power, and becomes a nurse in Insterburg (Chernyakhovsk), East Prussia. When the war becomes even more serious, she leaves Insterberg to try to reach the safety of Northern Germany. At the beginning of the novel, she is trekking across East Prussia, with a group of other evacuees from various different locations. Joana strikes me as a girl who is confident, but rotting inside due to guilt (hence the first line). She accidentally puts her cousin Lina in danger when she sends a letter with risky information contained. After her cousin is abducted to Siberia, a seed a guilt grows inside her, grasping hold of her heart, becoming a tree of worry and culpability. As the book progresses, this tree keeps on developing inside her - but I won't spoil anything. Moving on...

Emilia. Her birthplace is Lwow (Lviv) in Poland, present-day Ukraine. Throughout the book we learn more about her and her moving backstory. She is a brave person, and through the whole book faces up to her many hardships. She is also confused. She is a Pole, but where does she belong? She describes Poland's situation as:

'Two warring nations gripped Poland like girls fighting over a doll. One held the leg, the other the arm. They pulled so hard that one day, the head popped off.'

Where is she now? What does being Polish mean anymore?

Florian. I believe he is the character that changes and evolves the most during the book. At the start, he is unresponsive and no-one knows whose side he really is on. By the end, he becomes a much more compassionate and caring young man.

Alfred. Finally, Alfred is the odd one out of the four. He is a sailor and soldier of the Germans, who only encounters the other three when he oversees boarding those onto the Wilhelm Gustloff. He is an overconfident and slightly vain man, as you can tell in the many 'letters' in his head that he sends to his love, Hannelore. He prides himself - he almost seems to care more of himself than his Hannelore! Whilst the story moves on, he seems to become even more boastful. He is my least favourite character.

This gripping story really grabs my heart and makes me wonder. All these atrocities happening at that time. 1945. All I knew about 1945 was than the war was nearly over. But for these Prussians and Baltic people, this was the horror of their lives. I reflect on it. I had never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Ever. Even though it was the biggest maritime disaster in history; even bigger than Titanic. It really makes me think.

In conclusion, I think this book is suited to people of age 13 and over, so they can be fully capable of understanding the deep meanings in the novel. I would rate it 4.9/5 stars (because nothing is perfect!).

Posted on: 20th March 2017 at 06:00 pm

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