Lina Vilkas is 15 years old in 1941. She is a talented artist and celebrating her acceptance into art school. Life is good for the Vilkas. Until the Soviet NKVD barge into their home and take Lina, her mother, and her brother, to a work camp in Siberia. Her father has been sent to a prison camp, sentenced to death. With love and hope the family vows to stay together and fight for their lives and for their father. For her part, Lina has vowed to send messages to her father that the rest of the family is alive and well. Risking everything, she draws secret messages for him and hands them on, hoping against all odds that they will reach him. But there are more drawings. Drawings of the pain she sees around her, drawings of the gentleness she sees in her mother, drawings that document the brutal life of a Siberian work camp.
This is a poignant and well written account of Stalin’s “annexation” of the Baltic states, and the deportation and ensuing genocide of its citizens. We watch through Lina’s eyes as the NKVD barge into the Vilkas home, load the family onto cattle cars and deport them off Siberia, and then as they suffer under the hands of the merciless Soviet soldiers. All this terror is broken up through the happier memories that Lina recounts of her Lithuanian home.
The stunning prose in the book is only overshadowed by the truth of the horrors they describe. So often we hear of World War II and the horrors inflicted by the Nazi’s. But there was another evil at work in the world and Ruta Sepetys has managed to capture it. The author, herself, is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee and traveled to Lithuania to hear the stories of the gulag survivors. Perhaps it is this personal connection that enables Sepetys to render such atrocities in a beautiful and dignified way. To weave a thread of hope through the barren landscape of Siberia.
Nonetheless, I do have one quibble. In the final paragraph of the epilogue, the author makes note that the three Baltic states – Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia – regained their independence, peacefully and with dignity. While technically this is true, their independence wasn’t obtained in a vacuum, and other world events also contributed – not excluding the Papal visit to Poland in 1987 by Pope John Paul II. In her defence, Ms. Sepetys encourages her readers to research the subject. Also, in the same paragraph, Ms. Sepetys tells us that “love is the most powerful army.” But then goes on to say, ” 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 can’t help but bristle at the notion that love of country is equal to love of God. All love is not equal, indeed only One is perfect. That said, I wouldn’t recommend skipping the book for the final paragraph in the epilogue.
A great book. Discussion required.
- Author: Ruta Sepetys
- Publisher: Philomel; 1 edition (March 22, 2011)
- Hardcover 344 pages
- Reading Age: Ages 12 and up
What You Need to Know
- Role Models/Authority Figures – Lina’s mother, Elena, always looks to the good and does what it right. She repays anger with kindness, and selfishness with charity and gifts. Lina is good, too, though she struggles to do what is right – she is just 15 (and later 16), after all. There are good people everywhere in this book, even in the hidden lives of those we assume to be “bad guys.”
- Violence – The violence we see is that of the communist NKVD – the brutality with which they round-up the Lithuanians, the horror of the ride on a train. The violence in the work camp: people beat, a man has his teeth yanked out with pliers (163), a man is depicted with a stake through his chest (killed for sending a letter) (147), being shot at to inflict fear, etc (149). We also see the complete disregard for life in the way the NKVD handle the dead prisoners. One man tries (unsuccessfully) to take his life when the NKVD first arrest him (14, 16).
- Sexual Content – People are made to strip in front of the NKVD (men and women separately, but both in front of the NKVD) (98,260). lina is groped by one of the soldiers (98). One of the women is forced into prostitution by the NKVD. Lina is asked if the guards got to her “between her legs” (135). Some kissing between Lina and Andrius (232).
- Language – No common swear words. We hear the propaganda from the NKVD calling their prisoners “fascist pigs” and using other pejoratives.
- Consumerism – None. Well, Dicken’s Dombey and Son is mentioned (and your child may want a Russian copy, too). Lina is influenced by Edvard Munch.
- Drinking/Smoking/Drugs – Smoking is everywhere. They even smoke a book.
- Religion – Lina is influenced by the drawings and philosophy of Edvard Munch, “pain, love, and despair were links in an endless chain” (178)
- Awards – 2012 Golden Kite Award, Kirkus Review Best Books for Teen readers 2011, ALA Notable Children’s Book 2012, many more.