Ruta Sepetys’s novels are young adult books that “crossover” as adult books. Such is “I Must Betray You” (Philomel 2022) set on 1989 Romania, when it existed under the totalitarian regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena.
Cristian Florescu, 17, lives with his family in Bucharest where the Communist Party has the legal right to see everything anyone owns at any time. All apartment balconies must remain empty for clear viewing by authorities. The powerful “Reporters” are the only citizens who can afford black Dacias, the only Romanian-made car. One of these Reporters lives well in every apartment building. Romanians’ houses are bugged, but where? In the light fixtures? A huge percentage of the people are informers. Even within families, you don’t know if you’re safe. So you whisper.
You live in fear. And austerity. The citizens are told that the fields are lush with crops. That turns out to be a lie. But any crops that are grown are exported to pay government debt. The Romanian people eat rough bread or gruel. Kent cigarettes are used as currency to procure illegal services, such as medicine for Bunu, Cristian’s grandfather who is dying of leukemia. The electricity is turned off randomly and frequently. Bunu says, “This never knowing, it weakens us…It’s a form of control. They know exactly what they’re doing.”
The family members take turns standing in line to buy whatever food is available—a dented, expired can of beans, a potato the size of a lime.
Cici, Cristian’s sister, says, ‘beware of your friend Luca, who is eager and asks too many questions.’ Cristian is ordered into the office of the Securiate, the brutal secret service. They’ve framed him, said he owned American stamps. Now if he wants meds for outspoken Bunu, he’ll have to inform. But who set him up? Luca? Cristian has been in love with Luca’s sister, Liliana for ages, but maybe she’s the informer. Luca has rigged a car battery to generate light so they can all do homework. Is this suspicious? Everyone is suspicious of everyone else.
Cristian who speaks English is assigned to investigate Dan Van Dorn, son of an American diplomat. Cristian has access because his mother quietly obediently cleans the luxurious Van Dorn household. Their “refrigerator had enough food to feed a Romanian for an entire year.” Cristian watches pirated American movies and wonders if Americans really live like that.
The outside world has no idea how Romanians live. Ceaușescu has convinced world leaders of his benevolence, as he starves, imprisons, and kills his people. Secretly Romanians call him Draculescu, but in public, they must call him Our Good Father.
Cristian decides to act to change their circumstances. “How could we expect others to feel our pain or hear our cries for help when all we could do was whisper.”
When the city of Timisoara rebels against the government, Ceaușescu speaks in Bucharest’s University Square. All hell breaks loose. Rebellion! Many die but around Christmas 1989 Romania frees itself from Ceaușescu’s rule.
This well researched book set in historic Romania, which borders Ukraine, is a timely story set in an Eastern Bloc country—and a page turner.
Patricia Hruby Powell is the author of the award-winning books: Lift As You Climb; Josephine; Loving vs Virginia; and Struttin’ With Some Barbecue all signed and for sale at Jane Addams bookstore. Books forthcoming about women’s suffrage, Martha Graham, and Ella Fitzgerald. talesforallages.com