Ruta Sepetys does not shy away from stories that are hard to tell. She delves into history and researches some of the most devastating pieces of history to bring the stories to light. I Must Betray You, set in Romania in 1989, will take readers into a time of deprivation and difficulty, but the story will ultimately lead readers to the end of a dictator’s regime and freedom for the people of Romania.
I Must Betray You centers on Cristian Florescu, 17, who lives in Bucharest, Romania, and his family and friends. Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena, called “Mother Elena,” rule Romania by keeping the people subdued, hungry, fearful, and cold in the winter. The government lowers the power even on extremely cold days and nights as another way of controlling people. While the people live in poverty and deprivation, Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu live in luxury.
By 1989, Communist regimes are falling. Cristian longs for freedom, but he knows the danger he faces for even considering a democracy. Like so many other citizens of all ages, Cristian is recruited to be an informer. Like others before him, he chafes under this requirement, but he has to comply. Cristian, however, believes he can use his status as an informer to make some positive changes.
Cristian has some advantage over other informers. His mother works as a cleaner for the Van Dorn family. Mr. Van Dorn was the American ambassador in Romania. Cristian often goes to the apartment to walk his mother home after work so she won’t be alone. As a result, Cristian meets Dan Van Dorn, the teenaged son of the ambassador. Cristian hopes he can use this opportunity of being in the Van Dorn home to leave some sensitive information.
Along with being forced into being an informer, Cristian worries about his beloved grandfather who is ill with leukemia and cannot get appropriate medical care. As an informer, Cristian is promised medicine for his grandfather, but Cristian knows better than to believe he will actually receive the medicine. Still, he holds onto hope. Romanians must barter for necessary items. They use Kents as their money when they need items or services.
Readers also follow Cristian in school and in his falling in love with fellow high school student Liliana. Cristian cannot tell anyone that he is an informer and yet he must betray the ones he loves when he is called in to report. He tries to keep the reports benign.
The story is horrifying at times. In December, 1989, demonstrations against Nicolae Ceaușescu began in Timisoara. Nicolae Ceaușescu planned to speak in Bucharest shortly after the news of the Timisoara riots. People gathered, ostensibly to listen to his speech, but they began protesting as well. A full-fledged riot broke out with soldiers shooting citizens of all ages and arresting others. Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu fled the country, but were quickly captured and returned to stand trial. They were both found guilty and executed immediately.
I appreciated the epilogue at the end of the book to give readers information on the lives of those who survived the riots. I Must Betray You will be a story that book club members will not quickly forget. It will also generate a great deal of discussion.