I grew up with a father who fought in World War II. I always knew he didn't think much of Josef Stalin, but beyond the bit I learned in school I really didn't know why. This book by Ruta Sepetys, helped illuminate for me what went on "behind the scenes", so to speak, in Stalin's Soviet Union. To say I was profoundly moved and appalled is an understatement.
Fifteen year old Lina and her family are taken from their Lithuanian home one night in 1941, placed on a cattle train, and sent far away to remote Siberia. Separated from her father, Lina does not understand why they are forced to leave, and fear of the unknown is crippling. Along with her mother and younger brother, the taken people are forced to live in a shack and work for the NKVD (the Soviet military in charge). Lina, a gifted artist, is forced to dig in dirt, pick beets, and carry heavy bags of grain, all for a small bread ration each day. Her mother, Elena, is relentlessly upbeat about the possibility of being let go and reuniting with the father, and Jonas, Lina's younger brother, works hard but falls ill to scurvy. There is a young man, Andrius,with whom Lina begins to form a relationship, and a soldier named Kretzky whom Lina particularly despises. The others in the camp, including the bald man and the grouchy woman, bring the story to life as Lina struggles to maintain a sense of hope while just trying to survive.
At first glance, this story seems to be another Holocaust story, but the truth is, it has nothing to do with the Holocaust at all. These Lithuanians were all Christians who were sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor for their "crimes" against the Soviet Union. This included the children of those accused, and there was little to no hope of escape. The conditions these people were forced to endure do indeed echo the Holocaust, but are perhaps even worse as their story remains mostly untold.
It was easy to become engrossed in this story, as Lina's voice is clear and her words pull you inside the horrible, unthinkable actions of man against mankind. Her art helps her to survive, allowing her to express herself in limited ways and giving the reader a sense of the human who would not be defeated. This is not an easy book to read because of its subject matter, but it is an important one. With its strong content and horrible situations, it is probably better for slightly older children, but its message is definitely one people of all ages could embrace.