Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys, is a phenomenal YA historical fiction book. It follows four young adults from different countries during World War II as their paths converge to the fated MV Wilhelm Gustloff.
In 1945 the German military transport ship Wilhelm Gustloff sank in the Baltic Sea (the sea between Sweden and Latvia/Lithuania/Poland/etc.) while carrying around 10,600 passengers and crew. The majority of these were civilian refugees fleeing the approaching Red Army. Up to 9,400 people died, making it the largest loss of life of a single sunk ship, even greater than the Titanic, which is far better known (thanks, Wikipedia!).
Salt to the Sea‘s four main characters end up on this doomed boat as they flee from their past. (Spoilers ahead)
- Joana is a Lithuanian nurse in her early twenties. She feels guilty for leaving her family (including her cousin Lena, the main character of Between Shades of Gray, also by Sepetys) behind in Lithuania as she tries to escape to a safer country while helping to lead a small band of refugees.
- Florian is a seventeen year old Prussian who used to work at an art museam but realized he was being used by his mentor. Florian stole a valuable art piece, an amber swan from the Amber Room, and took off, trying to make it out of the country. He reluctantly joins up with Joana and her refugees.
- Emilia is fifteen and from Poland. She’s pregnant, and latches onto Florian as a protector. She joins up with Joana’s refugees with Florian.
- Alfred is an older German teen who eagerly buys into Hitler’s propaganda. Despite his enormous ego, he’s assigned as a sanitation worker on the Wilhelm Gustloff. Not that he does any work; he spends most of his time hiding and composing mental letters to the girl he likes back home, even though he reported her mother to the police for being a Jew.
Four points of view (POVs) is a lot for a book of Salt to the Sea‘s length, especially since there’s no necessary sequel. Although it’s technically 400 pages long, the chapters switch so often that there’s lots of blank space, making Salt to the Sea a fast read. At first glance, having four narrators seems like an odd choice. Can’t, say, Emilia and Joana cover Florian’s scenes?
However, each of these four POVs is essential to the story. Although Emilia, Joana, and Florian are often together, they all have such different pasts and such different secrets that their viewpoints are necessary. If you take a viewpoint away, you’d hardly see that person’s character growth.
Alfred is a little different. He rarely interacts with the others, and at first glance his character seems superfluous. However, he serves as a counterweight to the others. While they, in the end, are ultimately selfless, he is ultimately selfish. While they are the oppressed, he is the oppressor. While their arcs are hopeful, his is hopeless.
This is needed, though. Salt to the Sea does not tell a happy story- a hopeful one, yes, but not happy. The horrors of World War II came about because some people fell short of what they should have been. As uncomfortable as it is to read about, some of those people were teenagers, like Alfred. To deny that those people were just as real as the ‘good’ people, like by leaving them nameless and refusing them a character, rings false. Alfred- like Emilia, Joana, and Florian- is necessary.
Choosing how many and which characters should be POV characters is an important decision. Each POV should have a purpose behind it; the story should not be the same if it was removed.
Many books get away with having main characters with no point of views. Look at the original Sherlock Holmes stories- the main characters are Holmes and Watson, but only Watson has a POV. But for a book like Salt to the Sea, each character needs a POV.
Part 2 of “Multiple Points of View” is about Six of Crows. While Salt to the Sea demonstrates a purpose behind each POV, Six of Crows shows what happens when that purpose is absent.