Setting bookish resolutions at the start of each year is one of my favourite activities, and even if I don’t end up achieving every one of my goals, I still love the sensation of planning them, making lists, and setting TBR piles. We’re nearing the middle of the year now and I’ve fallen off the waggon with a few of my goals (let’s not talk about my lofty aim of reading one classic a month), but one in particular I’m still going strong with and really enjoying – reading a couple of books a month from a different country around the world. Eventually the goal is to have read a book by an author from (or born to parents from) every country in the world, although I know this will definitely take me more than a couple of years. So far I’m at 40, and that’s not even all from this year, but I’m enjoying the slow journey around the globe.
My latest travels took me to Lithuania – but then promptly out of it and into Siberia, with the ghastly mass deportations from Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia at the hands of the Soviet Union during World War Two. Shockingly, I had only vaguely heard of these events during history at school, never enough to even be able to tell you what the ‘Baltic States’ even were. Although this book is fiction, it is based on stories from survivors of the Baltic genocide Sepetys heard when visiting relatives in Lithuania, making it all the more harrowing when you read some of the more shocking events and encounters in the book.
The year is 1941, 15-year-old Lina is at home with her mother, father and brother when the NKVD (Soviet officers) break into their home, separate the rest of the family from their father, and force them into cramped and filthy cattle cars giving them no information. The short chapters used all the way through are effective for conveying the sense of hysteria and panic, especially during the earlier chapters with all the confusion and fear Lina and her family are feeling. For days on end thousands of people travel north against their will, unable to move more than a few inches in the carts, barely fed on gruel and kept in the dark until they reach the frozen wastelands of Siberia.
Along with the sort-of friends and fellow deportees they’ve become familiar with over the journey, Lina and her family find themselves in a labour camp, forced to work in gruelling conditions for pathetic food rations. Although technically classified as a young adult novel, Sepetys does not shy away from exposing the harsh reality and cruelties endured by the Baltic people. Frostbite, scurvy and physical abuse are just a few of the everyday normalities of the camp, not to mention the humiliation they suffer at the hands of the NKVD.
But Sepetys also draws our attention to the little kindnesses and glimmers of hope that kept these people going. She reminds us that few human beings are truly fully evil, and also that no matter how grumpy someone seems, they still have a heart. I did think one of the characters was slightly over the top and it was clear he was going to be revealed to have a heart of gold, but it was still endearing nonetheless.
Call me cold-hearted, but a pet peeve of mine in books is when there’s a war or an end-of-the-world situation and the protagonist falls in love with the first breathing non-relative they come across, and as our protagonist in this book is 15, the opportunity for this is ripe. Thankfully, Sepetys avoids the trope, and manages to write a 15-year-old character with more common sense and wisdom than many middle-aged protagonists I’ve come across. I love that she questions and considers her feelings carefully instead of hurtling full speed towards a doomed relationship, and even though I found the ending a tiny bit abrupt and too neatly tied up, it was still quite satisfying.
Prepare yourself for heartbreak with this book (and also some weird looks from strangers who think you’re reading 50 Shades of Grey on the train), but there is also hope. The hope that somewhere your family has made it out, the hope and comfort that art and literature bring us even during the darkest of times, and of course, the hope that blooms with new friendships and the endurance of the human spirit.