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This weekend’s pick brings us back a little bit in history, to 1989 and the break-up of the communist bloc in Eastern Europe. I Must Betray You is the story of 17-year old Cristian Florescu, a student and aspiring writer who struggles to live under the extraordinarily repressive regime of Romanian dictator Nicolai Ceaușescu where everyone lives under the constant threat of surveillance and can’t know who to trust. At the beginning of Cristian’s story, he is confronted by the Securitate, the Romanian secret police, and forced to become an informer in order to secure much-needed medicine for his sick grandfather. He is directed to observe and inform on a friend, the son of an American diplomat and share information about his activities with the Securitate.
Cristian is devastated; he knows that “it was not a proposal. It was an order, and one that compromised all principles of deceney. I’d be a rat, a turnător, secretly informing on the private lives of others” (p. 11). Thus begins his struggle as Cristian adapts to his new life as a secret spy, all while trying to maintain a semblance of normalcy amongst his family and friends. For today's readers, that “normal” is unrecognizable - a life in which students lived in fear, stood for hours in line to get food rations, couldn’t speak with any criticism against their country or leader, weren’t allowed to congregate in groups larger than four people at a time, and were completely cut off from the world outside their country’s borders. When Cristian is able to befriend Liliana, the girl who’s held his interest for some time, he is torn between his desire to tell her the truth and to keep quiet for their safety and the safety of his family, who he fears suspects his betrayal. Things only get more complicated when Crisitan discovers who else around him may also be working as an informer.
I Must Betray You is a fascinating, page-turning look at life in Bucharest, Romania just as its people rose in revolution against its tyrannical dictator. Cristian is a likable protagonist with whom readers come to empathize, as his story both teaches about a time and place with which readers are most likely unfamiliar, as well as offers the very recognizable conflicts a young person has in navigating issues of trust with family and friends. This book has much to teach young readers about the realities of living in the Eastern Bloc at this time, yet it also serves as a testimony to the power of a single voice in a sea of so many others. Cristian’s story is truly inspirational and will have young people wondering how they too can speak up and act out in the face of injustice.