Book review ‘Salt to the Sea’ by Ruta Sepetys

I saw Ruta Sepetys speak at the Hay Festival in May and I’m so glad I did, because otherwise this book may not have crossed my radar. It’s being marketed as a Young Adult novel (though DO NOT let that put you off) and there were many young people in the audience with whom Ruta was gracious, charming and generally lovely.

RutaThis book is magnificent and I urge you to read it. It was my book club read this month and we all loved it. It concerns a period in hsitory that is seldom openly discussed – the brutality of the Russian advance into Germany at the end of the WW2. One of the earliest books I reviewed on this blog was A Woman in Berlin (Anonymous author) which was an account, reputedly a true story, of the siege of that city and its final capture by Russian troops who, half-starved and brutalised themselves, set about rape and pillage of the native population (which by that stage was mostly women, children, older men and the infirm) on an industrial scale. It is tough reading. My WW2 history is not great so correct me if I’m wrong, but these events are not widely recognised and discussed because of course Stalin was part of the Allied group which defeated Hitler. There was, and, arguably, continues to be, a reluctance to openly acknowledge anything which might tarnish the glory of that victory. We all know that the Allies committed many atrocities in the name of war, but somehow these have been brushed over.

Enough of the political history because Salt to the Sea is so much more than that; it concerns an event that almost no-one knows about, the sinking of the civilian ship Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 by a Russian submarine, resulting in the largest loss of life at sea in maritime history, My children at school know all about the Titanic, thanks to the movie and the 100th anniversary of its sinking in 2012. A little over 1,500 people died in that disaster. Nine thousand died on the Wilhelm Gustloff, over half of them children and almost all of them desperate refugees.

It is a story beautifully and skilfully told through the eyes of four characters – Joana, a young Lithuanian nurse, Florian, A Prussian who worked for but then subsequently fled from the Nazi art theft effort, Emilia, a Polish girl from Lwow, whose parents sent her away from home to live with a German family with whom they thought she would be safe, and Alfred, a young German soldier, conceited, inept and deluded. Joana, Florian and Emilia are part of a small group, which includes an elderly shoemaker nicknamed ‘Poet’, a young boy, Klaus, a young blind girl, Ingrid, and Eva, a bold and forthright German woman. The raggle-taggle group has come together on the road, along with thousands of others, and is making its way to Gotenhafen, fleeing the brutal Russian advance, in the hope of boarding a ship which will take them further west and to what they hope will be relative safety.

It is the end of the war and they all know the Nazi Reich is close to collapsing, but the military remains in charge and committed to the Fuhrer’s cause. The group is also well aware of the fates of others who have fallen into the hands of Russian soldiers, some of them having direct experience of Russian violence. The group is facing multiple threats, not just from the Nazis and the Russians, but also from starvation and sickness. We follow the group as they trek across Prussia, learning about their back-stories, and the relationships between the group’s members evolve.

2018-07-11 15.29.05
“Freedom” – my copy, signed by the author!

Once they reach Gotenhafen, they feel relief and begin to feel safe. Although the town has become a ghetto, with thousands of desperate people trying to escape on a handful of ships, they are hopeful and begin to imagine a future once again. Alfred is one of the sailors on the ship and by the time the group meets him we have learned much about his earlier life. He will become an important character in the events our group is about to face, and his back-story is important to understanding the motivation behind his actions.

For the reader, the tension here is excruciating because although the characters are hopeful and relieved, we know that tragedy will strike the ship. It is just a question of who, if any of them, will survive.

Sometimes, knowledge of the general outcome of a story can have a profound effect on your reading experience. This was very much the case for me here. The tentative joy, so long held-back and so fragile, that the characters experience, contrasted so deeply with the doom and dread that I felt for them.

This is a Young Adult novel and I would suggest that it is appropriate for 14 years and upwards. Even then, some younger teens might find it quite challenging. I would liken it to The Book Thief. The characters are fictional, but the events portrayed in this book are real and we have a duty to acknowledge what happened in the past rather than to airbrush it.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

The Hay Festival 2018

2018-05-27 10.28.35-1
Before the crowds and the sun arrived. Hours later children were climbing all over the famous letters.

This weekend I fulfilled a long-held ambition and visited the Hay Festival. First established in 1988, this foremost of literary events is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and has spawned a number of copycat events worldwide – including in Mexico, Spain, Denmark and India. Bill Clinton famously referred to Hay as ‘the Woodstock of the Mind’. I’ve been meaning to go for years, but it never seems to have been the right time. This year, circumstances were in my favour and I realised, only last week, that I could actually go! Hay-on-Wye, is in Powys mid-Wales, and although it was a long trip I decided to drive there and back in a day (mainly on country roads through beautiful Welsh and English villages incidentally). It was the most amazing and stimulating day and I’m already blocking out my diary for next year – I’m staying in one of those yurts!

Ruta

My day started with a talk from the wonderful American-Lithuanian YA author Ruta Sepetys, who was discussing her latest book Salt to the Sea. It’s a book about the sinking of the ship Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945, by a Soviet torpedo, with the loss of 9,000 lives, mostly Lithuanian refugees, who were trying to escape the advancing Red Army. I can’t wait to read it, so look out for my review.

2018-05-27-13-53-56.jpgI then saw Rupert Everett (with whom I fell in love years ago after his appearances in films Another Country and Dance with a Stranger in the mid-1980s) in conversation with Alan Yentob. Everett has just completed his film about Oscar Wilde, a passion project which it has taken over ten years to bring to fruition. There was a BBC4 Imagine documentary about it a couple of weeks ago.

 

In the afternoon, I watched Cambridge academic Terri Apter give a talk about her new book Passing Judgement: Praise and Blame in Everyday Life which made me reflect on how I interact with my children, my partner and others around me, and how my responses to praise/blame may have been shaped by my early life experience. Fascinating stuff.

ElifShafakFinally, my last event of the day was hearing Turkish author Elif Shafak speaking about her new book The Forty Rules of Love. I reviewed her novel The Bastard of Istanbul on this blog a few months ago. I wasn’t made about it, but hearing her speak, I must say, was inspiring. She is a remarkable woman of deep learning, great sensitivity, multilingual and came across as a very nice person to boot. Stunning talk.

I lingered for some time, even when I knew I ought to be heading home to make sure my teenager had got out of bed. Though there was heavy rain and thunderstorms in the morning, the sun blazed all afternoon. It is a magnificent setting, the town, which I did not get to explore, is delightful, and there are so many events to choose from, many of them free. The Haydays festival within a festival, aimed at children and young people, offers a packed schedule for the little ones. There is a marvellous on-site bookshop, Oxfam bookshop, food outlets and a few retail stalls. But this is primarily a festival to make you think, not make you spend, and I heartily recommend it.

Next year’s festival takes place 23 May – 2 June. You can also subscribe to the Hay Player for £10 which enables you to watch or listen to the archive of thousands of events from Hay over the years.

Have you been to the Hay Festival? What were your impressions?

If you have enjoyed this post, do subscribe to my blog to receive future posts and reviews.