As teens, we don’t hear much about Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror in the 1940s. The terrible things that he was responsible for are often placed in the shadow of the Holocaust. Yet Stalin was responsible for the death of 20 million civilians, and his reasons for deporting them from eastern European countries to work camps and prisons in Russia made no more sense than the Holocaust. As students are working on their senior projects, they often ask me for a work of fiction that discusses something monumental like the Holocaust. But they know that all of their classmates are selecting novels about the Holocaust, and they want to work on something different.
If you are one of those students, here’s your book. And if you are interested in the great tragedies of history, this is your book. But of you just want to read a well-told story about a teenage girl living through the most difficult circumstances imaginable and yet maintaining her will to live, then—this is your book.
Lina is a fifteen-year-old Lithuanian in 1941. Her father has been removed, apparently to a Russian prison camp. She, along with her mother, Elena, and her brother, Jonas, is taken to a labor camp in Siberia. On the way, the cattle-car train stops in front of a hospital and the prisoners believe that those who are wounded or infirm will be helped. Instead, a woman who has just had a baby minutes earlier is thrown on the car with the newborn. You can guess the outcome of that, but reading of the baby’s death and then of the mother’s fate is no less tragic for it’s predictability.
The journey to Siberia will remind you of narratives of the Holocaust or movies like Schindler’s List. The circumstances in the cattle cars—crowding, darkness, hunger, no toilets, people dying and being thrown off when the train cars stop at stations—are absolutely horrific. Lina’s mother, Elena, is wise to have sewn valuables into her coat because she’ll need them to barter for the lives of her children.
And life in the labor camps in Siberia is a continuation of the horror. The Lithuanian prisoners’ only crime is that that are considered enemies of the Soviet state—that is they are well-educated thinkers or the innocent children of those thinkers. (In Lina’s group, we have a teacher and a librarian. Her own father is a college professor). Lina’s thoughts move back to her ordinary life: the local librarian and story hours, Christmases past, her teacher discovering her promise as an artist, and her hope of attending an art program in the Lithuanian capital. These past events punctuate her current reality.
Lina is a fighter. And the way she can fight through starvation, through the freezing cold of living in the Arctic Circle, and through the backbreaking labor of digging for beets and potatoes is to record the truth in her art. She takes a great risk in drawing the members of the NKVD (Secret Police), the prisoners, and the circumstances of their existence. She creates a record of the truth, to be found by a future generation.
One of the characters makes an interesting observation when he says that Hitler and Stalin are competing to be the ruler of hell. You know that there are people for whom power is everything. But you also question: Why create hell to rule over?