I have been drawn to books detailing the struggles of people during World War II since I have been a child. For that reason, I wanted a chance to read this book for years. Finally I was able to check it out through Overdrive from my library and was anxious to be transported back in time.
The story begins in Lithuania with Lina, her mother, and younger brother being deported by Soviet officers in a filthy train car to a place they had never experienced before – Siberia. Lina and her family, along with others that become family to her, are forced to work in cruel conditions at labor camps for Stalin’s regime. Lina uses her love for art as a tool to tell the story of the horrors she faced, despite the danger of her drawings being discovered. She hopes her art will help her father make his way back to her family after she finds him in a separate train car going to a different location.
In the first few pages of this story, I was confused about what was taking place because I had not seen the mention of the characters being Jewish. I even stopped reading to ask my husband, who happens to be a History Major, if he could clear up my confusion. We were both stumped. Eventually I came to realize through my reading that only one of the characters was in fact, Jewish. The deportations were actually a result of “Sovietization” and the result of Communism in Russia. Citizens from the Baltic states were removed, murdered, or forced into labor camps to further the agenda of Stalin. This was an unfamiliar aspect of history to both my husband and me.
I was absolutely horrified to learn these deportations were covered up or excluded from history books altogether. It was shocking to learn an estimated 20 million people died under the rule of Joseph Stalin. From my research, this is a low estimate, but still happens to be 10 million more than Hilter exterminated. While Hilter gets the credit for being one of the most horrible humans to walk the earth, I think it’s fair to say Stalin may have been more of a tyrant. His deportations and killings of innocent people, including 5,000 children, continued after the end of the war. People were simply too afraid to speak out against the Soviet regime. The populations of people native to the Baltic States severely declined, their homes were stolen, some people even returned to find their identities had been stolen – if they returned at all.
While this book deals with grim subject matter, I think it’s an important story for all people to learn about. The characters are fictional, but the events are raw and real. The characters are all too human, reminding us of the strength and determination of people, and the power of love. The pain in the stories is sometimes hard to bear, but worth knowing, for the sake of humanity alone. If history is undervalued, what is to stop it from repeating itself?
The author’s note at the end truly touched my heart,
“These three tiny nations have taught us that love is the most powerful army. Whether love of friend, love of country, love of God, or even love of enemy — love reveals to us the truly miraculous nature of the human spirit.”
I’m thankful I was finally able to read this excellent book and learn about a history that is too important to be forgotten. Ruta Sepetys’s book easily garners 5 stars from me for the fictional retelling of such a sordid history in such an inspiring way. Please pick up this book as soon as you have a chance.
Lots of Bookish Love,