Reviewed by E. B. Heath
Ruta Sepetys is a celebrated writer of historical fiction and a world-class ambassador for human dignity. Her books are written with the intent of giving voice to populations who suffered through cruel totalitarian regimes but are under-represented in historical records. She is categorized as a ‘crossover’ novelist, valued by both adults and young adults.
Sepetys’ latest novel, I Must Betray You, is set in Romania during the oppressive communist dictatorship of Nicola and Elena Ceausescu. This novel is less fiction, more history; readers are absorbed into the reality of the destitution of the Romanian people.
I Must Betray You is told through the perspective of Cristian; he is seventeen, intelligent and has a desire to be a writer.
Coming of age during the harsh dictatorship of Ceausescu is harrowing. Cristian is surrounded by fear and intimidation – he must have whispered conversations in his own home to avoid being overheard by bugging devices in the lights. Cristian dreams of being free but must be so careful what he says and to whom, never knowing who are secret agents of the regime. His grandfather is the only person he can trust. He has fallen in love with Liliana but even wonders if she can be trusted. Then his worst fears are realized when he is coerced by Ceausescu’s secret agents to being an informant, he agrees only because they offer medicine to cure his grandfather’s leukemia. Although this is psychologically traumatizing, it does give him an opportunity to expose the horrors of what is happening in Romania.
The first few chapters take a slow pace planting readers into this grim context. But the tempo races as Cristian becomes involved in a series of events culminating in the Revolution of 1989. It becomes hard to stop reading about this amazing time in history, and about the brave people who put their lives at risk in order to overthrow a cruel despot.
The ‘Author’s Note’ and ‘Research and Sources’ provides background information about Ruta and her Lithuanian family and list resources for further study. There are also photographs of people and place during the period of the novel. Ceausescu and his wife Elena can be seen posing with Richard Nixon and Queen Elizabeth. This cruel dictator had deceived Western leaders, presenting himself as a reasonable communist reformer challenging Russian authority.
Ruta is known to be passionate about the power of history and story to foster global dialogue and connectivity. She has been invited to present at NATO, the European Parliament, the U.S. Capitol, and the Library of Congress. She was awarded The Rockefeller Foundation’s prestigious Bellagio Fellowship for her studies on human resilience. Ruta has also been bestowed the Cross of the Knight of the Order by the President of Lithuania for her contributions to education and memory preservation and was further honored by a postage stamp containing her image.
Highly recommended. And thank you Ruta Sepetys!
By Ruta Sepetys