“I wept because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”
These simple words lie at the heart of Ruta Sepetys’ World War II masterpiece, Salt to the Sea. In it, she tells the story of the greatest maritime disaster in history: the wreck of the Wilhelm Gustloff. A Soviet submarine sank this German ocean liner on January 30, 1945. A staggering nine thousand people perished. (By comparison, the Titanic’s death toll was one thousand five hundred.) Because the Gustloff’s passengers were refugees from Nazi-occupied lands, their deaths went largely unreported and unmourned in the English-speaking world. I have a bachelor’s and a master’s in history, yet Sepetys’ fictional account was the first I ever heard of this tragedy.
The drama unfolds through the eyes of four protagonists. Alfred is a German naval lieutenant, helping organize passengers for departure. Meanwhile, Florian, Emilia, and Joana are Prussian, Polish, and Lithuanian refugees, trekking through frozen, war-torn countryside toward the harbor—desperate to reach the ship before the Red Army catches up with them. The Gustloff is the only thing keeping them going. After all, it is a luxury liner. The Gustloff (they tell themselves) has room for every lost soul. She represents safety. Freedom. Peace. Rest. It’s their ticket out of that special hell called Eastern Europe; that no-man’s-land between the Nazis and the Soviets.
We know—even if our heroes don’t—that their safe haven is doomed from the start. Only half our cast will make it through the wreck alive.
Pretty bleak, huh?
But Salt to the Sea isn’t a bleak story, when all is said and done. Salt to the Sea is about hope. For Florian, Joana, and Emilia, “I wept because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet,” is more than just a stale proverb. It’s a code to live by. No matter how miserable their circumstances, someone, somewhere, has it worse. Comparison is not the answer. Envy is not the answer. Despair is not the answer. Instead, the answer is to scoop up whatever scraps of joy gleam through the dark shadows, and hold on to them tight.
Joy can never entirely elude us, as long as we’re alive. Salt to the Sea goes further, though, hinting that joy may still be a possibility even after we die. I won’t say who makes this discovery, since that would require revealing who doesn’t make it to the other side. But I will say, when that certain character found their permanent berth on the great, unsinkable Ship of Souls—I cried.
“My war had been so long, my winters so very cold. But at last, I had come home. And, for the first time in a long time, I was not afraid.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jessica Prescott is a former homeschool student and current graduate student, pursuing a master’s degree in American history with a focus on immigration studies. In her (sadly limited) free time, she can usually be found listening to “Hamilton” or Celine Dion or Twenty One Pilots and dreaming up new ideas for historical fiction novels. Which, she hopes, will someday make her famous. Someday. She also blogs.