Book Review: I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys

I Must Betray You is a gripping, historical young adult novel about a teenage boy’s struggle for freedom in the final days of Romania’s oppressive communist regime. It shines a bright light on a topic that isn’t well-known to young people, and I highly recommend it as an account of what true oppression looks like.

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I read I Must Betray You as part of the 2022 Thoughtful Reading Challenge. November’s challenge was to read a young adult (YA) novel and then pass it along to a young person to enjoy. This book will make a great stocking stuffer for my daughters!

A quick review of life in Romania under the communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu. He and his wife, Elena, ruled Romania from the mid-60s until 1989, when they were both executed on Christmas day. They maintained tight control of Romanian citizens through a combination of fear and a cult of personality.

Under the Ceaușescu regime, Romanians:

  • Couldn’t travel freely out of the country
  • Couldn’t interact with Westerners
  • Couldn’t speak freely in their own homes because they were bugged
  • Couldn’t speak freely to friends and family because one in ten citizens were informers for the secret police
  • Experienced dire food and energy shortages
  • Faced imprisonment, torture, and even death if they broke laws or openly disagreed with the government

This a perfect setting for a YA novel because students are often behind revolutions, including the one in Romania.

The hero of I Must Betray You is Cristian, a seventeen-year-old student. Cristian lives in a one-bedroom apartment with his sister, parents, and grandfather, Bunu. Bunu is critical of the government and sows the seeds of dissent within Cristian. Because he can’t express his thoughts out loud, Cristian keeps a journal in which he writes about his longing for freedom and a hopeful future.

These longings increase when he is blackmailed into informing on the son of an American diplomat he befriended. This makes him resent the regime even more, and when the protests begin, he’s right in the thick of them, boldly denouncing his government despite the threat of violence.

I don’t know why I’m surprised when I like YA novels. Maybe it’s because I’m expecting cringe-y vampires or dystopian scenes of kids fighting for food. I Must Betray You had just the right amount of teenage angst and romance (without going overboard) in the context of a very serious topic.

The author did her research and made the treachery of the Ceaușescu regime come alive. I found myself wondering how I could survive such an oppressive situation that was completely devoid of freedom and hope. And I found myself with a renewed appreciation for the freedoms we enjoy in the US. I wish I Must Betray You could be mandatory reading for every young person who romanticizes communism.

As you can probably tell I really liked I Must Betray You. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in the last couple of years. If you like historical fiction and/or novels about the cold war era, I think you’ll like this book.

If you read a YA novel this month, please tell us about it in the comments section. And please recommend any of your favorite YA novels.

**Reminder: December’s challenge is to read a book set in the Pacific Northwest or Canada.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys

  1. Your glowing review has sold me on this book for myself and also my 17 year old granddaughter. There was a “children’s/middle school” book I read a couple years ago before gifting to her called The War That Saved My Life about two children sent to the countryside in northern England during WW II. It was a surprisingly good read and had a follow-up second book – The War I Finally Won. They were award winners written by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. I think more of a YA book myself. Anyway, I recommend them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a great book! I also really enjoyed this young adult fiction book, much more than I expected. Embarrassingly, I must admit that although I lived through this period in history, I knew very little about Romania and what occurred there. I guess I (we) were too focused on what happened in the Soviet Union? That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. This book was spot on – as you mentioned, some teenage love and angst but also plenty of adult suspense tied in with a lot of historical information about what Romania was like at the time and what occurred there. I wish I had a teenager to whom I could recommend this book.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Book Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie | Book Thoughts from Bed

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