Salt to the Sea,a young adult novel set during World War II,begins in January 1945, as the Third Reich is beginning to collapse. The Russians are gaining ground in East Prussia where Operation Hannibal, the largest evacuation by sea in history, is underway.Thousands of terrified refugees from the Baltic region are migrating to the port of Gotenhafen, Prussia (now Gydnia, Poland) to escape the encroaching Russians. There, they plan to board the Wilhelm Gustloff, a massive ship owned by the Germans. Joana, a twenty-one-year-old Lithuanian woman, along with other refugees, trudges along an icy road. The group of survivors includes an orphaned six-year old boy; a kindly, old cobbler, lovingly called the “shoe poet”; Ingrid, an intuitive blind girl; and Eva, a “giant” woman. Emilia, a fifteen-year-old Polish girl, hides in an abandoned cellar where Florian, a wounded young Prussian, saves her from a Russian soldier.
Prior, Florian has apprenticed in art restoration under the supervision of Dr. Lange, who is assisting Hitler in hiding priceless, stolen works of art in a museum in the Prussian city of Konigsberg. Florian’s talents as an artist grow, as does his admiration for Dr. Lange. While attending further training, he corresponds with Lange through letters. Later, he discovers these letters have never been read, and comes to realize Lange is using him in service of the Nazi regime, as Florian’s father has said he would. After Florian shoots the soldier, Emilia, who is eight months pregnant, attaches herself to him, although Florian would prefer to travel alone. Meanwhile, at the port of Gotenhafen, seventeen-year-old Alfred, an arrogant German soldier assigned to work on the Gustloff, hides in a supply closet. He grossly exaggerates his status in the German army in imaginary letters to his former next-door neighbors.
In spite of their different backgrounds, Joana, Florian, Emilia, and Alfred have one thing in common: they all harbor secrets that continue to weigh on their daily lives. One night, Joana’s group coincidentally encounters Florian and Emilia in an abandoned barn. Florian initially tries to reject the others, sneaking out early the next morning, though Emilia follows. Florian and Emilia meet up with the others again at an abandoned mansion. Their various secrets begin to emerge: Emilia’s pregnancy is exposed; Florian, a restoration artist, is running from Hitler; Joana is “a murderer” (42).
En route to Gotenhafen, Florian uses a forged SS courier pass to clear a checkpoint, denying association with the others. Florian disappears while the others sleep in a nearby cathedral to wait for the ice to freeze on the lagoon they must cross. The next morning Ingrid uses her heightened senses to test the ice on the frozen lagoon. Shots are fired, and Ingrid falls through a hole in the ice and drowns. Florian appears and saves Joana from Ingrid’s fate. The group encounters Alfred in Gotenhafen. He helps them get boarding passes on the Wilhelm Gustloff. Eva leaves to board the Hansa, a ship that makes it to the German port of Kiel, where the thousands of evacuees are headed.
Joana and Florian’s connection deepens; Emilia, Joana, Florian, the little boy, and the shoe poetgrow close. Emilia’s baby is born aboard the Gustloff and is recognized as a miracle. When the ship is struck by Soviet missiles, Emilia heroically saves her newborn, the little boy, andAlfred. Joana and Florian end up in a raft together with the children. Emilia and Alfred are in a separate raft. The shoe poet drowns. While Joana and Florian are rescued, Alfred becomes psychotic and attacks Emilia. Emilia tries to help him, but Alfred recoils and falls from the raft to a miserable death in the freezing water. Joana and Florian get married, raising Emilia’s baby and the little boy.
The novel ends on a bittersweet note when Florian, twenty-three years later, reads a letter from a woman who discovered Emilia’s raft on her beach in Denmark a month after the ship sank. She offers comfort and assures Florian that his “savior” is at peace, buried under a bed of roses. Salt to the Sea is a coming of age story in which the four main protagonists both make and resist the journey to adulthood in a world characterized by war and trauma. As the characters grapple with the obstacles in their past and present circumstances, the novel explores themes related to redefine family and overcoming the past by telling the truth.