by Ruta Sepetys
First sentence: “They took me in my nightgown.”
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It’s 1941. Police come in the night, taking a family by force, without explanation. They are taken to a train station, shoved into cattle cars with hundreds of other people, and taken — beaten, abused, shot, starved — to a camp where they are forced to work.
If you didn’t see the year, you would probably think this was a Holocaust book. It is, but not Hitler and Jews. It’s Stalin and the Lithuanians.
Our narrator is 15-year-old Lina, the oldest child of a university professor, an artist. She and her family are taken, separated — her mother bribes the NKVD (the precursor to the KGB) to keep her and her two children, Lina and Jonas together — and sent to work in the camps. They are branded traitors, criminals, prostitutes, anti-Soviet, and are sent to work initially at a beet farm. They are not treated well, to say the least, but there are moments — like Christmas, or the way the Lithuanians help each other — that are more humane. Then, inexplicably, Lina and her family are sent off to the Arctic Circle, to work in a camp there. In one of the more harrowing moments, an American ship ports and brings tons of supplies, all of which the NKVD officers get, and none of which go to the inmates (which the Americans don’t even know are there). So many people freeze to death; so many people lose hope.
It’s a harrowing book, disturbing, and as Maggie Stiefvater said, completely wrecked me. I could only read it in short chunks, interspersing it with something lighter, because that’s all I could handle. I couldn’t tell you about the writing, or the characters, or whether or not I liked it, because (like many Holocaust books), I couldn’t get past the fact that this was based on true events.
Which means, this now takes its place among those books that are Important and Should Be Read. If only so Lina’s — and Lithuania’s — story can be heard.