Salt to the Sea Summary

Ruta Sepetys

Salt to the Sea

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Salt to the Sea Summary

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Ruta Sepetys’ young adult novel Salt to the Sea takes place during WWII and chronicles the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a military transport ship owned by the Germans. On January 30, 1945 a Soviet submarine sunk the ship in the Baltic Sea. The ship was evacuating citizens, Nazis, and military as the Soviet army advanced.

Salt to Sea opens when Florian and Emilia meet. Emilia is under threat from an attacker, and Florian saves her. He is German and Emilia is Polish, yet he allows her to go with him because she reminds him of his sister Anni. Emilia hero-worships Florian for his coming to her aid. With Florian suffering a shrapnel injury from before he met Emilia, they hide in a barn, where they meet five other refugees. Joana, Klaus, Ingrid, Heinz, and Eva, like Florian and Emilia, are all running from the war. Four of them, however, are running from something else, too. They are being hunted.

After Joana helps Florian with his injury—which he does not readily agree to since he is not a trusting individual—the refugees decide to leave the barn and head for Gotenhafen, a port where they hope to gain their freedom. Their journey to Gotenhafen is not without incident. Florian intends to abandon Emilia, but gives her a gun for her protection. However, she follows him and uses the gun to save him from a German soldier.

They meet up again with the others at an abandoned estate where Joana continues to help Florian with his injury and the two begin to care for one another. Their various secrets begin to come to light during the group’s stay at the estate. Emilia is pregnant, and Florian is a deserter—he had taken part in the theft of priceless artwork in the course of his duties. The illusion of safety is destroyed when they find a murdered family within the estate and decide that they need to leave, and keep going to Gotenhafen.

They reach a checkpoint crowded with refugees, most of whom are killed by a bomb. Ingrid, who is blind, uses her other heightened senses to test the ice on the nearby river, to aid their crossing and escape. However, as more bombs fall, Ingrid herself falls through the ice and perishes. The rest of their group manages to escape the falling bombs and continue on to Gotenhafen. There they find thousands of evacuees and a sailor named Alfred Frick.

Alfred considers himself an asset to Germany, with abilities that far outstrip others. In reality, he does not fulfill his duties and instead daydreams about the letters he plans to write to Hannelore, the girl he loves, and how he will be a hero. Like many of the other characters in the story, Alfred has a secret to hide, but does it well as he is assigned to prepare the Wilhelm Gustloff for the evacuation.

Florian, Emilia, and the others take refuge in a cathedral while they await their chance to evacuate, but eventually, all except Eva (who goes on another ship) board the Wilhelm Gustloff, once a leisure vessel. They leave for Kiel. Over the course of their journey, Emilia’s baby, Halinka, is born. Joana and Florian admit their love for one another.

However, before they can reach Kiel, the ship is attacked and begins to sink. In this tragic turn of events, the reader—and the characters aboard—begin to see each other for their true natures as thousands perish in the sea. While Florian, Joana, and Emilia work to save as many lives as they can, Alfred’s actions reveal his cowardice. He learns about Emilia’s heritage, that she is Polish, and attempts to throw her into the sea, only to end up going overboard himself and drowning. Emilia also dies, along with Heinz. Florian and Joana survive, and adopt both Klaus and Halinka.

Salt to Sea received glowing reviews and recommendations for Sepetys’ ability to bring to life events of history that might otherwise be unknown or even ignored. The story is told through the eyes of four of the main characters—all of them have secrets to hide. The revelation of these secrets as the story develops, and the impact they have on the characters’ lives, form the main focus for the story.

Most important is the realization that the secrets these characters carry can either define who they are or inspire them to change for the better. A comparison between Alfred and Florian will demonstrate this, since both have done terrible things, yet they behave so differently in the face of tragedy. Other themes present in the story include innocence (such as in the characters of Ingrid and Emilia) and trust (such as the bond that forms between Joana and Florian).