Audience: Young Adult/Teen, Adult Crossover Interest
Genre: Historical Fiction
Summary: It is 1941 and Stalin's reign of terror is in full dominion, though fifteen-year-old Lina has no idea of the terrible forces at work. She is stunned when Soviet officers invade her home to arrest her family and deport them from Lithuania to Siberia, giving them only twenty minutes to pack a few belongings. Her father, not home at the time of the arrest, is separated from the rest of the family while Lina, her mother, and younger brother are crammed into a boxcar labeled "Thieves and Prostitutes." This is only the beginning of Lina's journey, filled with deplorable, life-threatening conditions and a slow realization of some of the more unsavory aspects of life. And yet through it all, Lina retains hope, following her mother's strong example and using her artistic talent to send messages to her father.
This is a truly lovely book; haunting and terribly sad because we know it is based on true events, but also inspirational. Ruta Sepetys writing is fluid and emotionally evocative. With a few precise words, she is able to make a powerful statement ("Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch."). It is never overdone or cheaply sentimental. The first sentence grabbed me, and I did not want to put this book down as Lina's story gradually and painfully unfurled:
They took me in my nightgown.The novel is written in short chapters, which makes some of the atrocities described a bit easier to digest. Scenes are not truly graphic, but they are vividly and powerfully depicted. But, again, there is a thread of hope and perseverance that runs throughout, as well as a budding love story to provide balance. Also, there are flashbacks to Lina's life in Lithuania before the deportation to provide respite and clues to explain why Lina's family was targeted by the Soviets.
Thinking back, the signs were there—family photos burned in the fireplace, Mother sewing her best silver into the lining of her coat late at night, and Papa not returning from work. My younger brother, Jonas, was asking questions. I asked questions, too, but perhaps I refused to acknowledge the signs. Only later did I realize Mother and Father intended we escape. We did not escape.
We were taken.
Reading this novel, I felt like I was reading a true account—like Hautzig's The Endless Steppe or even The Diary of Ann Frank. The characters, especially Lina, her mother, and a crotchety old man who is with the family on the train and at the various work camps, seemed real. Of course, several first-person accounts and interviews where included in Sepetys's research. And the author's own family history undoubtedly made this an intensely personal story.
My only complaint is that I felt the ending was a bit too abrupt. I wanted more. There is an epilogue at the end, but to me Lina's story felt incomplete. But, regardless of my slight disappointment with the ending, this is a story that needs to be told. The Holocaust is widely studied, but comparatively few are aware of the genocide of the Baltic people that took place under Stalin's rule. Sepetys's novel is an important work, both thought-provoking and enjoyable.