Many years ago I lived in Romania for 16 months as a young American volunteer. It was in the mid-nineties; communism (as it only shortly before existed in Romania) was a thing of the past, but its shadows still loomed large. Huge, half-built ‘hunger domes’ — that had been intended as neighborhood mess halls — were left to rot once democracy arrived, deteriorating gray apartment blocs lined the streets, and state-owned stores were sometimes still the only place to buy the few goods available. Still, Romanians treasured their newfound freedom, and a fascination with the spoils of the west was ubiquitous.
As a young volunteer I worked with all types of people from the Bucharest population. I didn’t have a lot of contact with teenage boys–only the few who threw snowballs at us in January, and of course the 18-year-old I once met, who proposed marriage as soon as he learned my origin. I never really wondered what was going on in their minds, what they remembered from communism, or what they expected of their future once the revolution was complete. I had my work, and I suppose they had school, as well as family life in a cramped apartment, if they were lucky.
My return to my native California at the end of my extended time in Romania was eye-opening. I saw the pristine streets with gleaming homes and commercial buildings with new eyes, and they seemed like luxury. Things like personalized license plates and manicure salons were absolute decadence in my mind, having lived over a year in one of Europe’s poorest countries. I have never forgotten the lessons I learned in Romania.
At the beginning of 2022 I heard a lot of hype surrounding the new novel I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys (2022). Upon release, it quickly came in at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list, and the friends I knew from my time in Romania were all raving about it. I thought that I, too, would give it a read.
I Must Betray You is set in Romania in the 1980s. It follows the thoughts and activities of Cristian, a 17-year-old boy who has lived under a repressive regime all his life. He notices the injustices, and dreams of freedom, the kind his grandfather remembers and whispers about. Cristian writes all of his secret thoughts in a journal which he keeps buried in his closet-bedroom. Eventually he has to make some really tough decisions, ones that reveal his true character.
Although the author herself is not Romanian (she’s Lithuanian), I think she writes about this particular time and place from a truly informed perspective. Her descriptions of living conditions, the depressed economy, the people and their habits, and the horrific government restrictions, are all very much in line with what I experienced and heard from eyewitnesses while living in Bucharest.
In her novel, Sepetys uses the backdrop of the Ceaucescu era in Romania to pit the societal fear of communism against the inherent human drive for self-determination. Thus she weaves a story of fear and frustration, contrasted with courage and hope, from the point of view Romania’s youth. All that young people desire: love, study, work, freedom of movement, popular media, and freedom of thought, and freedom of expression, are addressed in this depiction of life in the Ceaucescu regime.
Cristian admires a girl in his school class but his relationship with her is caught between the struggle for freedom to do as he chooses, and the desire to just keep the peace. ‘Keep your head down and go along with the rest so no one will get hurt’ are the cautionary words of those around them. He tries to protect himself and those he loves, waffling between complacency and courage.
Cristian wants to write out his thoughts, but in an apartment that’s bugged, with friends and family members that are known informers, who can he trust to share them with?
He watches an American diplomatic family longingly as they move freely between Romania and their home in America. For Cristian such trips outside his homeland are strictly forbidden. He hears of defectors who succeed in leaving, but only at the cost of death or torture to their families left behind.
Cristian joins secret viewings of contraband Western videos in private homes. This, and the torn-out magazine pages he receives from his American friend, are the only forms of popular media he can enjoy, and his only view of the outside world. Any other exposure is strictly forbidden and punishable with prison, or worse.
Sepetys appeals to a young adult audience by speaking their language. She shows them what it would feel like if they were denied these basic assets, things which we in the democratic West all take for granted.
Can a society’s youth really change the world? Sepetys thinks so, and this emerges as the main theme in her story. When young people become outraged by the unfair treatment imposed upon them, straining their relationships, their dreams, and their futures, something has to be done. They have to stand up, in courage, and rally together, just as those courageous Romanians actually did in the 1980s.
In the novel, a university student standing by a lamppost with a flag calls, “Remember, this is peaceful. We’re asking for food and electricity. We’re asking for freedom of opinion, freedom of religion. For those of you who are undecided—please, join us! Workers, come join us! Students, come join us! The world is watching Eastern Europe. Show them that Romanians aren’t cowards. Together we’ll stand up against tyranny. We’re going to march for freedom. Join us!” And they do.
Sepetys shows us that old people can be heroes too. Cristian’s grandfather inspires him to think in a new way. His clearly expressed interpretations of what he observes around him fall on fertile ears. Cristian is moved to follow his grandfather’s urgings. In the words of Marianne Williamson: “There is no single effort more radical in its potential for saving the world than a transformation of the way we raise our children.” The wisdom and experience of the old, synergistically combined with the energy and optimism of youth, can bring needed change in any society where its occupants feel oppressed.
I found I Must Betray You to be a powerful book, highlighting a period in history vastly under-represented, but of great significance. Sepetys is a gifted writer whose words, though geared toward a younger audience, are gripping, didactic, and effective. I highlighted many of her immortal phrases! She gives voice to the story of so many Romanian heroes to readers in many languages. It’s the story of a country, but as benefactors (or victims) of human history, it’s the story of us all.
If you enjoyed I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys, also try From the Rooftops by V M Karren:
After her fiancé is murdered, a grief-stricken girl performs a courageous act. With it, she sets an international investigation in motion, which uncovers a hidden network of crime.
In this sequel to the acclaimed novel, The Deceit of Riches, award-winning author V M Karren takes the reader to the far reaches of Europe to explore and root out hidden corruption, through the eyes of two American spies and one heroine of the Romanian Revolution.
Click on cover to read a sample.