The critics called this an “important” book, which usually turns me off. But I saw it on a table in the YA section of B&N and picked it up. My 17 yr old’s favorite book is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which is about Jews during WWII, and this one, as I read the back cover, seemed right up her alley. She often prefers the more general fiction. So I gave it to her, she loved it, and insisted I read it – bugging me for days, so I put it on top of the TBR pile, and started in. It is the story of Lina, a 17 yr old artist, her mother, and her smaller brother Jonas, who is still fairly young. Their father is a professor at the local university, and has been gone for a few days. Their mother tells them not to worry, but they do. Stalin is taking over Lithuania, as well as Latvia and Estonia and parts of Finland. The Soviets are so feared, that many think Hitler is their answer, although a few jewish Lithuanians with relatives in Germany say it’s bad there, that Jews are having to wear armbands – the atrocities to come were not known at this point. One night, while Lina is home for the summer from art school, soldiers come pounding at the door. Their mother comes upstairs and tells them to pack things they might need, not things they love, in one suitcase each. Lina can’t find her beloved sketchbook, and she stuff a photograph of her family and her grandmother who had died the previous year. Her mother comes in, and shoves in basic clothes, and then helps her brother. Lina is dazed and confused. When the kids come downstairs, their mother is smashing all her beloved china. When asked why, she says “because I love it so.” She does not want anyone else handling or using it in her absence. They have no idea where they are going or how long they will be gone, although it seems her other may know more. They are herded to a truck, and taken to the train statin where thousands of other Lithuanians are milling about, unable to fathom what was going on. It seems they are on some “list” as possible enemies of the Soviets, as people who might be against them with revolutionary ideas – teachers, librarians, all kinds of people. They are herded onto a train car with a bunch of others, and sit there, waiting for all the cars to fill up and people get sorted out. Lina and another young man in her car, Andrius, decide to climb through a hole in the bottom of the train car and creep underneath, poking their head up into each one, asking about their fathers and other men that people kept asking them to check on. Lina finally finds her father and he tells her cryptically to pass messages along to others using her special gift, but being careful not to say too much, and they will eventually find their way to him. As the train pulls out finally, they begin their 1 1/2 year journey through Russia. At one point early one, they stop briefly for the cars that hold the men, including her father, to be uncoupled and taken elsewhere, to a prison she is later told.
The story unfolds through her eyes, as they stop for about 6 months in a work camp just north of Mongolia, and overwinter there, in miserable conditions, working longs days digging beets and potatoes, just to have a ration of bread. People get sick, but food smuggling is born, and things ease up a bit. They are asked to sign documents saying they are enemies of the state and will work for 25 years in the prison camps. Some do, as they get bigger rations and can take trips to the local village where they can barter for things, and mail heavily redacted letters to family and friends and even receive redacted ones back. Lina and her mother refuse to sign, as do others and they are punished for it, but they manage to bribe one of the women into passing mail to them, and so Lina begins drawing what she sees around her – for her, it is cathartic. But she also draws odd little things, that embed clues as to where they are, and who they are, and simply ask that they be passed around to try and end up at the prison where her father is. This is what he asked her to do. After the work camp, they travel to Siberia, where they arrive just before winter sets in. They are at the top of Russia, inside the arctic circle, and life is brutal and frigid. They have to work for the Soviets, building them strong buildings for bunks and a bakery of wood and bricks they brought along, while they must scavenge the woods for broken bits to build yurts for themselves. They are given small rations, and if they fall ill, since they didn’t work, no rations. Many die.
This is a novel. The author’s father was a young boy who escaped into Germany before the Soviets began the deportations, but he had friends and family who didn’t , and were deported. The author traveled to Lithuania to meet with relatives and others, who finally broke their silence of 50+ years and told their stories. Some had done as Lina did, made drawings, others music, and others stories. Through out it all, the Lithuania spirit remained alive through stories told in the small huts, celebrations with only a few things to remind them of home, and songs of the nation. After the Lithuanians were released from the gulags, they came home to find the Soviets living in their homes and working their jobs, and if they complained, they disappeared, and so began 50 years of silence during the Soviet occupation. Afterwards, in 1991, when the Soviets finally left, they simply continued the pattern so deeply ingrained in them, to not speak of it. That is why, that although history textbooks talk about Stalin’s extermination of 20 million people, they don’t mention the toll on the Baltic states – 1/3 of their population was gone. So the author wanted to finally break that silence and tell this story, so it won’t happen again – that such exterminations were not just a once time thing with Hitler, but happened elsewhere, where anyone could be a target. I will willingly use the sobriquet “important” on this book, although I am not sure it does it justice. At once funny, tender, sweet, horrific, moving and sad, it tugs at the heartstrings and won’t let go. Bravo!