This is the book we voted on for March in my long-distance book club. Honestly, I have had it on my shelf for years, meaning to read it, so this is awesome. I originally was interested in it because I’d read that it was by an author of Lithuanian descent, writing about the Lithuanian experience under Russian and/or German (depending on timing) control during WW2. This is worth mentioning because I’m Lithuanian (and Polish) and I have never really seen (though, to be fair, I have never really looked too hard) books by Lithuanian authors. And, of course, I knew that they were one of the countries that essentially disappeared into the Soviet Union, like struck off the map disappeared, but I never thought to look more into it ever. Which I now feel a little bad about – like my family just leaned into the Polish and I never really considered why that might have been. Anyways, it was recommended by one of the other members who also has Lithuanian family, some of whom actually spent time in a Siberian labor camp during WW2 (whereas my ancestors made it out/to America right before things closed for good and leaving became impossible) and they wanted to learn more. First, I appreciate that because it gave me the chance to finally learn more as well. And second, I’ve been friends with this person since 4th grade and we never knew we had that ancestry in common! So anyways, here’s to the start of what is, hopefully, more learning.
This YA historical fiction focuses on 15 year old Lina Vilkas and her family (mother and younger brother Jonas) who are deported from Lithuania by Russian police (NKVD) in the summer of 1941. The novel follows their time in transportation on cattle cars over months from their homeland to the farthest reaches of Siberia to be used as forced labor in these underpopulated areas of Russia. Lina makes a connection with another deportee her age, Andrius, and along with his emotional (and material) support, and timely assistance from some unlikely places, Lina and her family struggle to survive the starvation-level rations, illness, freezing weather, mistreatment by NKVD, verbal abuse and degradation by police and locals alike, and overall mental and physical trauma of years of exile and horrific conditions.
I have to start at the end here, though that seems a bit counterintuitive, because the author’s Afterward just…blew me away. I truly had no idea how recently some of the survivors of these Siberian labor camps have managed to be freed and allowed back to their homelands. Like, 1960s recent. And even those that managed to get out earlier were silenced by fear of the NKVD’s successor, the KGB, and unable to share, process or otherwise bring attention to the horrific experiences they endured. This is absolutely unbelievable to me, since it seems that the whole world knows about the atrocities of the Holocaust, and yet these hauntingly similar situations/conditions continued for decades after that for hundreds of thousands of people from myriad “disappeared” counties without any international response or assistance or outcry or anything. Like, I know this was all during the Cold War drama, but still… I had no idea AT ALL. And I feel like that really isn’t ok on a lot of levels – not only the obvious ones, but the more subtle sinister ones, like the fact that survivors and their families never got the chance to process and try to deal with the trauma and what kind of affect that has to have had on them and their children and numerous generations to come. Plus I feel like this is something that should be included at least in all the Cold War history we are taught in school and it is totally ignored/swept under the proverbial rug. Yeesh… Color me absolutely planning to read more about this now.
Now, let’s talk about this book specifically. Overall, it was a really solidly paced and written YA historical fiction. I read it all in a single day (well, listened to it, but it’s fairly short so I think it would have been similar if I had sat down to read the physical copy). And it was not like that’s all I did during that day. So basically, it was a fast read. I think this is in part due to the fact that the writing style is very simple and straightforward, no frills or lyricism to be found. Not in a bad way. It’s fine writing – nothing awkward or stilted. Just plain, with a bent towards realism, which fits, topically, really nicely. It also seemed aimed at a young YA/high MG age, as far as comprehension level, so that’s another reason I think it went so fast.
As far as plot and characters and everything else, it was similarly basic. And again, I don’t mean that in a bad way. There were a few characters that did get some dimension added to them, as far as the way they acted or the decisions they made. Sepetys did a nice job demonstrating for a younger audience how sometimes circumstances put us in a position where the “best” choice is not the one we would prefer to make, but are forced to make. Lina’s eyes are opened on this front a few times throughout the novel, as she makes judgements about people and then has to pull back and reevaluate when she sees their realities, which is a great lesson (for any age reader). Lina’s relationship with her mother and brother, and memories of her father, are close-knit and strong from the start, so watching them develop and become ever stronger under duress was a key aspect of this novel. You can feel Sepetys’ own strength of feeling about family in all of those aspects. There’s also a sweet little romance that Lina gets to have, showing the strength humanity has to endure even under the most extreme conditions – it’s youthfully pure and a nice foil to the horror that pervades every other part of the novel.
Speaking of which, from the very beginning Sepetys does not hold back with her descriptions and portrayals of the torturous, horrific and often deadly conditions these Lithuanian (and Latvian and Estonian and Finnish, etc.) families and characters faced. Considering the writing style she used was one aimed toward, at least in my opinion, younger YA readers, the subject matter definitely pushes boundaries there. Considering Lina and her younger brother’s ages when they actually experienced these atrocities, and the importance of people finally learning/knowing about this piece of history, it’s (again, in my opinion) fine. I just want to make sure that there is clear content warning about these pieces of the book (death, murder, starvation, sexual harassment/abuse, myriad mental/emotional/physical abuses against prisoners, slurs of various kinds, etc.) so that any readers, but especially young ones (and their caregivers), go in prepared. Finally, I did think the inclusion of Lina’s art, as a coping mechanism and a method of communication, was a nice touch – really connecting the reader to the character. Also, a great demonstration of how each person who suffered this life had their own hobbies and skills and dreams and individualisms and all of that was lost and forgotten in this move to eliminate them. Adding it back into Lina’s story gave her back the humanity that was stolen from her.
At the end of the day, I really appreciated this novel and the chance to read it. Stylistically and in execution, it was nothing particularly unique or spectacular. However, it does a thorough and honorable job recognizing a people and a piece of history that has been forced under the rug and pretended to not exist so long that as a world, we’ve moved on to the point where a clear and vocal global recognition is likely lost. So, thank you to Sepetys for giving these lost voices a platform. And as a reader, I thank Sepetys for giving me the reason and push to go look for more information on my own history, past this novel. That’s a worthy accomplishment for an author/book.