Lina is fifteen. World War II has ended. Her family luxuriates in the comfort of an intellectual, urban life in Kaunas. But there are hints of danger. One night, they’re awaken by the Soviet secret police and deported from Lithuania as criminals.
At the train depot, the Vilkas family and hundreds of other intellectual and political prisoners are loaded onto boxcars and sent away without trial, to an unknown destinations.
Lina’s family struggles to find food, shelter and rest. They lend aid to, and are in turn bolstered by, kind strangers. The cruelty of other deportees and guards is shocking.
Lina refuses to give up her beloved art. She uses paper and tools she smuggled into her suitcase. Later, it’s sticks, ashes, pieces of wood and stolen supplies. The narrative touches on artists and works of literature, hinting how the interior life of imagination helps to process pain. Art (and this book itself, a work of testamentary fiction) bears witness to atrocity. In making sense, maybe even making beauty out of suffering, artists and writers hope to spare others. And if not spare—at least assuage scars.
The sketches must remain hidden in books, suitcases or under floors. Still, Lina is desperate to capture faces, landscapes, horrors. It is the desperation of all people with stolen voices. Lina fights back by secretly remembering, by remaining creative, by resisting her captors. It feels like her only other option is to become a ghost, or a monster.
The robust characters and plot of this novel are not pure imagination. Lithuanian-American Sepetys wrote in part from her family’s memories. She also traveled to Lithuania to speak with forced deportation survivors. Some, like Lina, kept diaries or painted images that were hidden for decades in Soviet-occupied Lithuania.
This story of a post-war Baltic girl isn’t something most Americans are accustomed to. Perhaps it doesn’t deserve a 1500-word review. (Shrug.) Even I didn’t know that 700 years ago, Lithuania was the largest country in Europe. It was the last European country to convert to Christianity…and the first republic (in 1991) to declare independence from the Soviet Union. Lithuanian is one of the two
surviving most intact (conserving features of the original) Indo-European languages in Europe.
…[it] is the most archaic among all the Indo-European languages spoken today, and as a result it is very useful, indeed, indispensable in the study of Indo-European linguistics. (Antanas Klimas, “English and Lithuanian: Two Candidates for the International Languages,” The English Record, XIV, April 4, 1969, 62)
My Dad, the original Gudaitis of the Gooditis blog, was born in Lithuania just before the war. He was a man without a country for almost thirty years. The beautiful land of his birth, Lina’s homeland, was swallowed up by the Soviets in 1944. He couldn’t get a Lithuanian passport, because there was no Lithuania. His family lived as refugees in Germany, but could not become citizens. Nor could they obtain citizenship at first when they immigrated to Chicago in 1951. They lost a farm, a father and everything familiar. He had no little green booklet that stamped him as a native son, until years later when he received U.S. citizenship (when I was in elementary school).