I recently found myself reading I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys. It’s a young adult historical novel about life in communist Romania as well as the revolution that upended it. One of the things this novel does so well is paint a picture of the regime of terror in Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu.
I traveled in Romania just a few years ago, and found the place puzzling to an outsider. This book helps me understand why this injured nation hasn’t been able to recover fully, even after more than thirty years. Betraying your loved ones poisons the soul.
It’s 1989. Cristian Florescu, a high school student with aspirations to be a writer, tries to keep a low profile. Like other Romanians, he doesn’t get much to eat. His parents have to stand in lines for hours and hours to get one bottle of cooking oil or one bag of flour. The land produces food, but the government confiscates it to export and pay the regime’s bills.
One day, he’s summoned by the secret police and offered a choice: become an informant for the secret police, or watch his grandfather die for lack of cancer treatment.
He loves his grandfather, so he agrees to spy on the American diplomat who has hired his mother to clean house, and so it begins. He soon finds himself certain that there are other informants around him, reporting on infringements of the petty rules that Romanians had to follow. Who, for example, told the secret police that he’d enjoyed a clandestine Coke with his girlfriend? It has to be someone he is close to.
So, who can he trust when he can’t even trust himself? And, what can he do to buck the system? Most citizens cower and cooperate. Is that his fate?
This book is good food for thought and discussion for a mature teen reader. It would be a terrific addition to a study of the Communist era in Eastern Europe. Five stars.