Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they’ve known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia.
Here they are forced, under Stalin’s orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions. Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously–and at great risk–documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father’s prison camp to let him know they are still alive.
It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives.
Going into this book, I had high expectations. I had previously read Salt to the Sea and it was AMAZING. I loved it. I had expected more due to another one of her books I read and was disappointed. While I still believe the book had good elements, the book overall lacked qualities that would have considered it a great read.
- Realistic – The author held no details back when it came to the story. She painted this grim and heart breaking narrative to make it feel as horrific as it was for the people who experienced it. The details provided immersed the readers as if they were actually there. These rich details allowed us to feel the character’s pain and hopelessness. For me to consider a historical fiction novel to be good, it has to have an accurate and authentic setting. This was by far my favorite part of the book.
- Perspective – Our experience in the story was not limited to the main character. Ruta Sepetys allowed us to see how different people reacted to the same horrific experience. The mother took the situation in stride. She showed compassion and fairness to her fellow Lithuanians. The grim attitudes of her compatriots did not stop her from sharing the little food she had. Another perspective I greatly enjoyed came from the old man. He reminded the reader of the harsh reality of their situation. He thought it was better to die of dignity than endure what he knew what was coming.
- Value of Life – Don’t they say that you don’t know what you have until it’s gone? When you get relocated to the outreaches of Siberia, you appreciate the comfortable life you used to have. The retrospect in the novel was subtle with the flashbacks interspersed within the story. While I don’t think the flashbacks had enough value, they did provide this element. There were two main reasons why I felt the value of life was important. The characters endured countless audacities from the hands of the Russians. The NKVD diminished the value of their lives and their actions caused many of their friends to die. When death surrounds you, you value your life a lot more.
“Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.”
- Lack of Story – I found the plot to be uneventful at times. It was difficult for me to get invested in the story as I felt like it dragged at times. There is a difference between telling a story accurately and the ability to engage the reader. I understand that there is a line there. I felt like there was a lack of engagement on the author’s end. The Lithuanians being relocated by train cars and the harsh conditions endured were pertinent to the story. It allowed the reader to grasp the reality of the situation. However, I felt like these scenes dragged on. The length of these scenes devalued the insight gained by readers.
- Character Development – I believe the book would have more value if Lina was not the main character. I felt like Lina lacked any kind of character arc as the book progressed. I felt like her mother had more impact to the story overall. To me, I saw her as the heroine. She was important in holding her family together in the face of evil. You can also see this as she did her part to hold their group together. In these difficult situations, she was still able to show compassion, fairness and loyalty to her people.
- The Conclusion – My least favorite part of the book was the ending. It ended ……. abruptly. One day, we were with Lina at the end of a particularly tough winter and then, epilogue. It was so sudden. The epilogue fast forwarded us to 1995 where a construction crew discovers a note from Lina, dated 1954. While the story revolved around the family, many of the same side characters experienced the same injustices. During the entirety of the story, we got to experience each of these unique characters. However, we have no clue what happened to them at the end. How did they move on? What happened to them afterwards? We don’t know.
While I did not love the story, it is an important one to acknowledge. When it comes to the many transgressions of World War II, this side is relatively unknown to the world. It is often overshadowed by Germany and their concentration camps. It is an important side of the war that must be recognized. If you are interested in reading other historical fictions based around WWII, here is a list of a few that I loved;
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
My Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐