“They took me in my nightgown.”
This chilling sentence begins Ruta Sepetys powerful debut novel. Fifteen-year-old Lina and her family are taken in the middle of the night by the Soviet secret police. The year is 1941, and the Soviet Union has taken control of Lithuania. The first thing they do is gather people to be deported and then eliminated. Lina’s harrowing journey starts when her brother and mother are separated from their father and then herded into a train labeled “thieves and prostitutes.” They are taken to different labor camps in Siberia where they must try to survive by any means possible. Lina documents the monstrosities she witnesses through her artwork and writing in her journal. She hopes that her artwork will make it to the prison camp where she learns her father is being held. Love, hope and faith get Lina and her family through the horrific trials they face.
This is one of the most powerful books I’ve read in a long time. I challenge anyone to read it without needing a box of tissues. I couldn’t believe how ignorant I was of the horrors Stalin committed. Sepetys based this story on her own family’s history. After spending time in Lithuanian with her family, Sepetys learned her grandfather was a Lithuanian refugee. Many of the stories included in the book are direct accounts from those who suffered through them.
One event that is still clear in my mind occurred while Lina and her family where in the Altai Labor Camp. The soldiers forced the women to dig each day for turnips. One day the Commander came with the water, but before allowing them to drink, he forced four of the women into a hole. He then started shooting into the hole and kicking dirt onto the women, covering their faces. He yelled at them, saying if they sat up, they would be shot. There were so many other scenes just as powerful. This novel was so emotional, I had to take breaks from reading. Sepetys’ work will be a tremendous teaching tool in high school classrooms to study this lesser-known period in our world history.