In the notes for the Carnegie (this book is on the shortlist) the first question is: Have you heard the story of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff before reading this book?
I have a history degree and an interest in history and historical fiction. My A Level dealt with the Second World War and I have never heard of it.
On the 30th January 1945 Germany were just about to lose the war. They were evacuating civilians, wounded men, Nazi officials, nurses and various military personnel from East Prussia before the Russians arrived and killed everyone. The ship was built before the war for German workers to enjoy a cruise on. As a result it was kitted out for pleasure and not as a military carrier. It was also built to carry approx. 1500 people (remember this figure, it will be significant later).
Salt to the Sea follows the story of four young people who are all connected to the Wilhelm Gustloff. Joana is from Lithuania and has some nursing experience. She has met up with some refugees who are heading for the coast and hoping to get a ship to Germany. As she has medical experience she has become a naturalised German citizen. She is helping the group, including an old man who is a shoemaker, a young boy who has lost his family, and a blind girl. The shoemaker knows the countryside and is helping them to reach the port and safety. Florian is a German boy escaping from the Nazi art thieves. He is also an expert forger and is carrying a big secret. Emilia meets up with Florian who saves her from being raped by a Russian soldier. She is grateful to him and attaches herself to him as her protector. He isn’t too pleased about this. They meet up with Joana and the larger group and, when they realise they are all heading in the same direction they link up. Not that Florian is very pleased about this either. Then there is Alfred. He is a German sailor who is already on the ship, preparing it for evacuation. He is also a bit crazy. He composes letters to his sweetheart in his head, except it turns out he never writes them, and she isn’t his sweetheart. And he isn’t very nice. I liked his segments though, they were amusing!
If you are looking for a light-hearted read then this is not it. The war was brutal, especially during the final few months when the Russians were invading German held territory. Many children, old people and woman were in vulnerable and dangerous positions. Most of the Polish civilian population were drifting after the German occupation in September 1939 and the Polish people had endured terrible hardship. Emilia is from Poland but had been left with a German family. Her story is maybe the most shocking of them all.
It is no spoiler to tell you that the Wilhelm Gustloff was hit by three Russian torpedoes in the Baltic Sea in January 1945. The ship had no hospital markings as it had anti aircraft guns fitted and so was seen as a target. It was also in deep water with its lights on to avoid mines. A sitting target. The death toll for the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff was 9400. Mostly wounded men, women and children. It was the biggest maritime disaster in WW2 and is not spoken about, even today.
What I won’t tell you is what happens to the characters. The way they interlink is good and the various narrators works well. I also enjoyed the way that the author fleshes out the other characters so that we care about what happens to them, the shoemaker and the little boy for example. It is a well written, exciting and life affirming book. The subject matter is obviously disturbing and tragic but it is handled in a sensitive and interesting way.
It did also make me go off and do some research about the ship and what happened afterwards. Another terrible disaster in an already terrible war. A good choice for the Carnegie though, and definitely one that I may not have picked up.