“This never knowing, it weakens us,” Bunu would say. “It’s a form of control. They know exactly what they’re doing.”– Ruta Sepetys, “I Must Betray You”
I Must Betray You is Ruta Sepetys’s newest historical fiction novel marketed for young adults. I absolutely love how Sepetys manages to take a little known (at least for American high school students) historical event and teach about it in a way that doesn’t feel like a history lecture. The same holds true for her newest novel. I Must Betray You is set in Romania in 1989, at the height of Ceaușescu’s dictatorship. Christian Florescu, our protagonist, lives in a police state where citizens report on all the activities and criminal behavior of other citizens in exchange for medicine, cigarettes for illegal bribes, or simple luxuries, such as Coca Cola.
Life under the dictatorship is limited. Families are large as Ceaușescu’s regime encourages and rewards mothers for families of five and ten children. But families never have enough money and food to support themselves, no matter how small or large. Adults stand in lines each day to buy bread and other groceries. They were able to get more even under the duress of World War II rations. Electricity works only intermittently. Movies from the “West” are contraband. Sodas are contraband. Anything that might signal that you are not absolutely devoted to Communism is not only banned, but extremely dangerous.
Christian is a high school student living in Bucharest under this regime. His sister works in a textile factory across the street. His mother and father are quiet and secretive and extremely cautious. But Christian’s grandfather, Bunu, remembers adult life before the regime. He is outspoken and takes risks. He encourages Christian to write his thoughts about living in Communist Romania. Maybe one day he’ll be able to do more than hide them under the floorboards of a closet.
When Christian is blackmailed at school by the secret police, he has no choice but to become an informant and spy on and report on those around him. Nearly everyone does something forbidden. There’s no shortage of people to report on. He tries to take the high road by reporting on the Americans who live nearby. He has easy access to them as his mother cleans their home. He thinks he can pass information out of Romania perhaps while also informing to earn medicine for Bunu, who is grievously ill. But the secret police are smarter than he gives them credit for.
This book has a gripping premise. The potential for existential dread and gnawing fear is perfect for a historical thriller. Unfortunately, this book suffers from some serious pacing issues. The plot is largely internalized in Christian’s head, the struggle all in his mind, for the vast majority of the book. Nothing much actually happens. Because of this, while I can understand on a surface level the extreme anxiety all the characters live with on a daily basis, I don’t exactly feel it. The book almost tells the reader about emotions instead of showing them and allowing them to blossom.
The last quarter or so of the book moves quickly. Everything happens. Betrayal after betrayal will leave you spinning. It’s a lot to absorb in a short span of pages. This isn’t bad, but it’s astonishing compared to the initial slow and internal conflict of the book. The last few pages reveal the depth of the horror of the regime. Only after Ceaușescu has fallen is the true extent of his effect on the lives and families of Romanians truly brought to life.
Despite the book’s flaws, Sepetys tells a great story. The characters mostly make up for pacing issues. The subject matter is completely fresh to the target audience. Students will get a history lesson without a stuffy lecture. The book doesn’t come across as preachy or condescending about a topic that will be brand new to most targeted readers. While this may not be the masterpiece that is Salt to the Sea, fans of Sepetys’s other works won’t be disappointed in the end.
“Sorrow. Anger. An expanse of emptiness that takes form as a separate entity living inside of you. It digs, takes root, and dwells there. And somehow, you know that even if it worms its way out, there will be no relief. If it leaves, there will be nothing left but charred remains, like the inside of a house torched by fire.”– Ruta Sepetys, “I Must Betray You”
- This book shines a light on Romania and on the evils of dictatorships and police states. It exposes young adults (and adults too!) to places and concepts with which they may not be familiar.
- Christian’s motivations are realistic and immersive.
- Christian’s family and their reactions to one another and their circumstances also feel realistic. His grandfather feels a bit larger that life, but in the way that teenagers tend to put their most admired person on a pedastal.
- This book suffers terribly from pacing issues. The first three quarters of the book is rather boring. Instead of the existential dread I was meant to feel, I mostly felt bored.
“Just remember, Pui, good luck comes at a price. Bad luck is free.”
- fans of Sepetys’s other books, especially Fountains of Silence
- those interested in Eastern Europe
- those interested in what it would be like to live under a police state
- students of history
- fans of psychological thrillers
Books to Read if You Loved I Must Betray You:
Let’s Discuss! (Pick a question and drop a comment with your reply!)
- Is it important for average Americans to understand the history and struggles of those in Europe?
- Why do high school history classes in the United States so rarely teach in depth about Communism? About Eastern Europe in general?