Salt to the Sea, written by best-seller author of Between Shades of Grey Ruta Sepetys, tells a heart-wrenching and gripping historical fiction account of an overlooked by-product of WWII. Tragically symbolic of the disaster, Sepetys eternalizes the story of human struggle across the pages of the novel from four intertwined voices: Joana, Florian, Emilia, and Alfred.
The unique characters, of varying backgrounds—a compassionate Lithuanian nurse, an innocent German soldier, a young, pregnant Polish girl, and a careful Prussian thief—cross the paths of each other, pushed together by calamity and betrayal. The book follows their journey to the Wilhelm Gustloff, the only light at the end of their tunneled worlds. The ship, an escape from the Red Army, however, is overpopulated.
The cruel truth of the history, as well as the fictional characters created, brings the world in the book to life. Although the back-stories for the characters are not explicitly written, the mystery brings a kind of de-personalization to the series of events that occur. A reader can feel him or herself more realistically in the story, stumbling upon a group of strangers, coming together, and getting to know one another by circumstance. And then, when their stories are over, all that is left of them is a memory of the time spent together. A point evocatively hit upon in the story was how someone can be judged based solely on his or her shoes. Whether they are in good condition, made from good material, their laces (or lack thereof), a person’s shoes tell their whole story.
This particular comment reminded me of the Paul Simon song, Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes. The song, though brimming with shifting poly-rhythms and clever lyrics, simply tells the story of a rich New York girl, her many suitors, and her shoes, the soles laced with diamonds. Likewise, although the shoes of Sepetys’ characters tell a bit about each of their individual and unique stories, the world full of horror and hardship will continue to label these accounts as simple stories, overlooking true human condition.
For all historical fiction readers and shoe lovers, I highly recommend Sepetys’ book. She maintains a striking balance between history and fiction. And because of her beautiful words, I give her nothing but the highest praise.
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.