Winter 1945. WWII. Four refugees. Four stories.
Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies, war. As thousands desperately flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom. But not all promises can be kept . . .
Book Club discussion highlights:
Historical fiction is not a genre I normally seek out for myself. Which is why I love so much that each member of the book club has an opportunity to pick a book for an upcoming month. This broadens everyone’s horizons to read outside of our little box.
Salt to the Sea is probably going to be one of my favourite reads of 2019.
The story is written from four point-of-view characters – Joana, Florian, Emilia, and Alfred. At first I was concerned with each chapter written in first person, how I was going to keep track of who’s who. However, the voices are each unique and character development is so well done, that getting to know who is who only took a few chapters to sort out.
The goal of the story is to bring awareness to the largest maritime disaster in history, that no one talks about – the bombing of the ship Wilhelm Gustloff during WWII when the German’s were evacuating and the Russians were hunting them down.
There was some interesting discussion about the story being from the point of view of the people evacuating, where as we would normally have thought of the Russians as allies, during this story we are felt to fear them finding our main characters who just want out of the country and onto a ship to sail to safety. The author also makes the characters of different descents – German, Lithuanian, Polish. Yet they all (well, three of them really) work together to survive the journey to the boats, overcoming their cultural differences to see each other as individuals.
At first glance the books size may seem a bit daunting, however, the chapters are each really short, sometimes only one page, sometimes three pages. I read the book so much faster than I expected because I found I’d finish a chapter and then think the next one is only two pages, and read that, then repeat. I just sailed through the story in a week, which for me, is pretty good.
Sepetys did a wonderful job of introducing themes of the story in an intriguing and memorable way. Each of us commented on the striking opening line for each character. Joana – “Guilt is a hunter.” Florian – “Fate is a hunter.” Emilia – “Shame is a hunter.” Alfred – “Fear is a hunter.” And their individual stories explain why they think this of themselves and she wraps each one up beautifully by the end of the book.
The only discussion we really had that was negative about many of the characters, main or secondary, were that they were stereotypical. Joana the smart pretty one. Emilia the fragile one wearing the pink hat. Florian the good-looking, secret-keeping romantic. And Alfred the snake with the ugly skin rash condition. However, it was interesting that only one of our members picked up on this while reading. Once it was pointed out we all had this “oh yeah” moment. And then it became a disappointing part of the story.
Overall, we all loved the book. It was realistic, beautifully written (almost poetic), heart-wrenching. The author set out to make us aware of the horrific fate of the Wilhelm Gustloff and she accomplished that. We recommend this book.
This is an unsolicited review. I purchased my copy from Amazon.ca.
- Paperback: 448 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Books (Aug. 1 2017)
- ISBN-13: 978-0142423622