Tuesday, May 3, 2022

I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys

It's weird to read a book that feels so much like historical fiction and yet the events take place in 1989, one year after my Kiddo was born, and I clearly remember what happened to communism all over Eastern Europe that year. This novel takes place in Romania, which had been governed under the repressive communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife since 1965 and the Romanian people were controlled by the secret police called Securitate through the use of mass surveillance, which included turning ordinary citizens into informers, usually through blackmail. 

And that is just what happens to Cristian Florescu, a 17-year-old student who dreams of becoming a writer and who secretly enjoys poetry and philosophy and buys English language stuff on the sly. Then one October school day in 1989, Cristian is pulled out of class by a member of the Securitate, or Secu, who informs him that they know what he has done. Cristian is an avid stamp collector and his crime was having given a Romanian stamp to American teen, Dan Van Dorn, the son of American diplomat Nick Van Dorn stationed in Romania. But later, when he looked through his stamp book, Cristian had discovered an American dollar inside it, which was illegal to possess and the Secu tells him he is now guilty of illegal trafficking. Unless...he agrees to collect information on the Van Dorn family where his mother works cleaning their apartment. In exchange for information, Cristian's grandfather, his Bunu, a rebel in his own right, would receive needed medicine for his leukemia.

And because the Secu blackmailed people into becoming informers, Cristian had learned not to trust anyone, certainly not his best friend Luca, whom he is sure was the one who informed on him about the American dollar, or even Liliana, the girl he is attracted to. But Cristian decides that he will not be the kind of informer the Secu wants, thinking he can undermine the Secu. 

Meanwhile, Cristian learns about the fall of Communist regimes are happening all over Europe - Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia - secretly listening to Radio Free Europe on his family's forbidden radio. Why, he wonders, can't that happen in Romania? Perhaps if the world knew what was happening in there, things would be different. And Cristian has just the plan to hopefully make that happen.  

Ruta Sepetys has always been an author whose work I looked forward to reading and yet, I was reluctant to read I Must Betray You. Perhaps it was because of current events happening in the world right now, but once I began reading, I couldn't put the book down. Right from the beginning, Cristian is a compelling character, caring, sensitive and intelligent, curious about the world outside of Romania and, like the grandfather he looks up to, as much of a rebel as you can be under a harsh communist regime. And for that reason, I, of course, wanted to find out what happens once he becomes a reluctant informer for the Securitate. 

Sepetys has also drawn a picture of Romania under Ceaușescu's dictatorship that is as chilling as it is scary. Neighbors and friends informing on neighbors and friends, getting up early to stand in long lines to buy meager amounts of food, acquiring and keeping constant count of Kent cigarettes to use for bartering and bribing, never knowing what is being documented that can be used to manipulate or arrest you. Even the bottle of Coke or the Twinkie that Cristian and Liliana secretly share is documented - but how? Who saw it? Who reported it? But the Secu knows, just like they know about the American dollar Cristian finds. 

As with all of her novels, Sepetys has really done her research. She has managed to convey the hardships, the fear, the constant hunger, and lack of trust in the lives of the Romanian people at that time so well that I had to keep reminding myself that this is a story based on reality and not a dystopian novel, because that is almost what Ceaușescu's Romania felt like. 

Be sure to check the back matter. There is a variety of interesting and informative photographs, an Author's Note that shouldn't be missed, information on Sepetys' Research and Sources, plus an extensive list of sources. And for those who are sharing this book with their class or book club, you can find a Discussion Guide HERE 

This book was borrowed from the NYPL

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