Four Star review, originally posted here on April 15, 2016.
This book had a couple issues. I realized, though, that most of that was just because it’s a YA novel, so I guess if I had read this as a 14 year old none of it would have bugged me. I could have done without the cheesy love story, for example, that was kinda shoehorned in there and detracted from the real story. 14 year old me probably would have loved it, though. And almost every single chapter ended with some sort of shocker sentence (I’m sure there’s a literary term for this but I don’t know it), which might have been fine except each chapter was also needlessly short, meaning that on pretty much every other pager we’d suddenly stop for a shocking revelation, then would continue along with the same story. Pacing wise it just got a little comical, not a good thing for a book whose subject matter couldn’t be more serious. But again, young me would have eaten all of this up, so it’s fine for it’s intended audience. But I’m in my 30’s and 30’s me would have preferred this to be a little meatier. Also this title is terrible. It would have been kinda blah to begin with, but 50 Shades has been out for years now- why would any publisher agree to such a similar title? Come on now. Hence 4 instead of 5 stars.
All that being said…
This book is GREAT.
I am speaking, admittedly, with extreme bias here. I read this book thinking “There but for the grace of God go I.” My immediate family was extremely lucky because it escaped the Baltics. But we could have just as easily wound up in Siberia just like the characters in this book. My grandmother’s brother died in a Soviet prison camp. My mom’s cousin was declared an enemy of the state at age seven and deported. He was lucky enough to make it back alive. The story of Soviet deportations is terrifying and tragic, and for my entire lifetime my mind has been blown that pretty much nobody in the west seemed to have any idea of its happening at all, let alone of its scale and brutality. We read a million Nazi Holocaust books in school. We never read a single thing about what was happening behind the eastern front at the same time.
These stories and this history have remained buried for far too long. Sepetys’ book is the perfect vessel to gently yet unflinchingly easing western readers into this unfamiliar territory. Despite my previous disparaging comments about YA novels, I think the choice to aim for a younger audience was a good choice. As a friend mentioned in her review, our protagonist and narrator is young and naive, learning all about the complications and atrocities of Soviet occupation as the story moved along. In this way the reader can relate, since information is introduced at a digestible pacing. It’s tough subject matter, to be sure, but it’s introduced as gently as possible without sugarcoating anything, a tough job for any author, handled aptly by Sepetys.
I also agree with the decision to only describe one year of Lina’s exile. I recently read a memoir by a Latvian woman who was in Siberia for over a decade, and it followed her entire time in Siberia. It was very, very rough reading that just wrecked me emotionally, and I went into it knowing roughly what to expect. Considering that this novel is likely the first time that most western readers will hear about any of this, keeping the timeline short is probably a good call so as not to completely overwhelm people. This story is overwhelming enough as it is, especially once we travel into the Arctic circle.
Final thought: If you’re someone who knows me and has wondered why I take all this Latvian stuff so seriously, read this book. Because THIS book shows just how much vicious effort went into destroying my people and their culture, and that’s something that you can’t just turn your back on.