This novel came to me through the lack of World Literature in translation.
After taking inspiration from the blog, ayearofreadingtheworld.com and my personal link to Lithuania (my wife is from Lithuania) I attempted to find a few titles I’d been recommended. However, I couldn’t find any full works so settled upon this novel.
Much of the history of the Baltic States (especially the war years) isn’t widely known, especially the dreadful treatment by the Soviets in the Second World War. This novel, however, isn’t a work in translation; Sepetys was born in Detroit and continues to live in America.
The story is set in set in 1941 and the majority of the characters are fictionalised but the happenings are based on first-hand accounts and memories from survivors.
“They took me in my nightgown” (p. 3)
It follows Lina and her family as they are forced from their home in Kaunas by the NKVD (Soviet Secret Police) herded like animals onto cattle carriages – marked ‘Thieves and Prostitutes’ to hide what was going on – and forced on a journey that ends in the harsh climate of Siberia. Their only crime is to be considered anti-Soviet by Stalin, in the sense that they were: Doctors, Lawyers, Teachers, musicians and posed a threat to his end goal.
As Lina, a gifted artist, documents the dehumanisation and death of the Prisoners she meets; many of whom will survive and many will perish on her journey. For Lina, the separation from her father is the driving force behind her drawings, hoping that he’ll receive them – wherever he has been taken.
“I saw spruce and pine trees interspersed with farmlands. I looked around, memorizing the landscape to draw it for Papa.” (p.113)
Lina is sentenced to 25 years hard labor. By the time the war ended and the Lithuanian’s returned home (many had been in hard labor for 10-15 years), their houses were occupied by Soviets and consequently the horrific experiences swept under the carpet. Lina’s memories are dug up in 1995 by some construction workers, this shows the fear of those returning from the camps.
“The writings and drawings you hold in your hands were buried in the year 1954….Though we were committed no offense, we are viewed as criminals. Even now speaking of the we have experienced would result in our death” (Epilogue, p. 337)
The lack of material in translation from the Baltic states angered me, as I think the experiences – like the ones documented in this novel – are important. This is a captivating story of love. Love between different families and strangers who are forced together in horrendous circumstances.
I’ve read that this novel is aimed at a YA audience, but I never have and never will categorise novels in this way; I mean, a story is a story right?
Sepetys delivers excellent characters and a captivating narrative; the only gripe I had with the novel is that in one of Lina’s memories, her brother Jonas and his father go to a soccer match together. Having spent a lot of time in Lithuania I’m all too aware of how unpopular Soccer is; it is all about the basketball.
A very unimportant point but I had to mention it.
That said, the novel is very well researched and one that I couldn’t put down for the two days it took me to read the 344 pages.
Section that Stayed
Lina asks: “Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.
If anyone has read any Baltic novels in translation, then please get in touch; I’d love to read and review them.