Having read a number of war books recently I didn’t really feel ready for another one. However, when Salt to the Sea won this year’s Carnegie Medal and encouraged by the swathe of glowing reviews I wanted to read it for myself and I’m so glad I did.
It tells the devastating story of four young people in the last days of WW2. Each of them is from a different European country and has suffered during the long years of war. Joana, Florian and Emilia are amongst hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing under desperate circumstances of fear, cold, hunger and danger to the port of Gotenhafen on the Baltic Sea. From here Germany has launched a massive naval evacuation of those trapped by the advancing Red Army. These three travel together and encounter Alfred, the fourth narrator, once they reach the port.
The Wilhelm Gustloff was loaded to the gunnels with refugees and left Gotenhafen at the end of January 1945. Several hours after leaving port, it was hit by torpedoes launched by a Russian submarine. It sunk in just an hour and nine thousand lives were lost, more than half of them children. This is the worst naval tragedy in history, but with the Reich in its death throes, this tragic event wasn’t broadcast at the time. To this day, many of us haven’t heard of it.
Boarding the Wilhelm Gustloff was the last hope for those people trapped by the Russians, including our group. While we know the terrible event Joana, Florian, Emilia and Alfred will have to face, we don’t know how it will turn out for them and the suspense is sometimes too much to bear.
You can tell this book has been very well researched and it’s written with enormous skill. The short chapters make it a page-turner and through incredible characterisation, we are able to feel for those who were there living through this terrible event in history. It’s a story you won’t ever forget.
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