By Harshita Jain
Have you seen the Titanic? Probably. But have you ever heard about the Wilhelm Gustloff? Probably not. Surprisingly, two times the number of deaths in the Titanic took place in this tragedy.
Salt to the Sea is a book written by Ruta Sepetys to tell people about the Wilhelm Gustloff sinking, along with the 10,000 refugees. What really makes the book stand out is the character development and relationships which are nurtured by Ruta Sepetys.
Being her third book, Ruta follows a similar plot idea in her books. Her debut piece, ‘Between Shades of Gray’ is a book about “the largely forgotten plight of the Baltic peoples crushed between the great powers at the beginning of World War II” according to The New York Times. Her new feature: Salt to the Sea is also depicts a group of refugees fleeing like many others at that time to a safe land. In her interview with the Chicago Tribune, the author mentioned how she too had to do extensive research to gain knowledge about this particular incident, in order to share it with the public.
Salt to the Sea is told through the perspective of Joana, an empathetic Lithuanian nurse; Florian, a young Prussian man with fake documents; Emilia, a pregnant Polish girl; and Alfred, a self-esteemed low-ranked German soldier. The novel weaves in and out of each character’s perspective, giving the reader an insight into the feelings of all characters.
The protagonists are all introduced in a similar way. Joana’s introduction is “Guilt is a hunter.” Florian calls “Fate” a hunter. Emilia expresses that,“Shame is a hunter.” And Alfred declares, “Fear is a hunter.” This craft move by the author gives us some hint about each of the characters, and what their background might have been.
As the story unfolds, Florian discovers Emilia being molested by a Russian soldier, and saves her by shooting the soldier. Henceforth, Florian and Emilia travel together, and find Joana and her small group. Within the first few chapters, all the characters have met each other.
The intense and interesting character development has captured the reader’s attention, even before the mention of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Although Ruta Sepetys has not revealed anything about the character’s background, the reader is able to imagine the character through the actions and decisions that have been made by Joana, Florian, Emilia, or Alfred.
The characters find and share bitter truths about each other. For example, Emilia becomes pregnant because she was raped by Russian soldiers. They learn different lessons of love, friendship, and cheating. We can see this when Florian steals Joana’s belongings from her bag, and runs away. The characters share different legends from their home countries. The shoe poet, an old man travelling in this group, told tales about shoes and lessons of life. Throughout the course of the book, the characters learn a lot about each other through direct interactions. They understand the lifestyle and habits of each person. In this novel, the characters spend a great deal of time together, making it easier for the reader to connect with the complex relationships.
The character development over the course of the book can be seen clearly in the actions, dialogue, and relations. The speciality of the book is that even though the characters are fictional, the struggle of Joana, Florian, Emilia, or Alfred is thoroughly illustrated. One such example is the sinking of the ship, drowning many characters along with it. Even though Florian is a survivor, he regrets being unable to save many of his friends. The reader is able to share Florian’s pain.
To conclude, the ship is an important part of history and the book. However, what stays with the reader is the attachment to the characters, which was built through character development. Sometimes how people comprehend your actions is different from how you anticipated it. Salt to the Sea is perfect example of the author trying to get her point across, instead the reader grasps other parts of the story.