2023 Newbery Buzz #5: I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys

I Must Betray You is one of those novels that straddles the line between Newbery age ranges and Printz age ranges. Will it get some love from either award committee? Or both?

We’re back with Newbery Buzz Discussion #5 for 2023. To read the rest in the series or previous years’ discussions, check out the Newbery Buzz Page.

I Must Betray You: Background

Betsy: Megan, I think this is the first book by Ruta Sepetys that you’ve read; you don’t tend to read as many gritty YA novels as I do. But it’s my fourth Sepetys novel, and, I think, her most well-written (Between Shades of Gray is still my favorite). And thank you for reading it! [Readers, you might not realize how much we have to lobby for our favorites behind the scenes; we’re all reading plenty of books without adding to the stack. These Newbery Buzz books become a competition for who can convince someone else on the team to read yet another book :-).] 

Before we dive in, I’ll remind readers a little bit about this book. I first read it almost a year ago, and reviewed it last March as well. Set in Soviet-occupied Romania during the 1980s, the book came out just as the globe watched Russia invade Ukraine. Thus, it felt (and feels) eerily current. The book is narrated primarily by a teen boy (a first for Sepetys; her books usually center around young women) who is journalling his experience: he’s agreed to do something for the government in return for medicine for his sick grandfather. In the process, he realizes that he can trust no one; everyone else might be a traitor also. I told Megan this book would suck her in and then break her heart. Readers, consider yourselves warned.

So, Megan, what do you think of Sepetys as a writer? Is there anyone you might compare her to, stylistically or in terms of genre?

Megan: Betsy, you tested my mettle with this one. You warned me fairly that it would be an emotional experience but worth it, and I must agree. No, this isn’t my typical genre, but I found myself comparing it to Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Eugene Yelchin. Because Yelchin’s book was directed to a younger audience it wasn’t as heroic or heartbreaking, but the descriptions of families living in tight apartments with severe deprivation…even the mention of gum and perception of Americans was very similar. Sepetys is definitely a gifted writer, and I was happy to note a book in her list of sources that is right on my desk: A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver (I haven’t read it yet, but am eager to). Writing prose with poetry in mind is important, thinking about imagery and the sound of language. 

She successfully drew me into the emotional turmoil of not knowing who you could trust. Did that remind you of any other books?

Emotional Tension: Real, Dystopian, and Historical

Betsy: Sepetys excels at pulling the reader into Cristian’s fear and emotional turmoil, which was exacerbated because he couldn’t even reliably trust his own family. He wanted to, but didn’t have the bedrock confidence that any one person was 100% trustworthy. Honestly, I thought first of missionaries in societies that are openly hostile to Christianity, and in which they must meet underground. Often, those overlap with Communist countries, such as the Soviet-occupied Romania in this book or contemporary North Korea. We have wonderful accounts, like Brother Andrew’s, of missionaries bravely sharing the gospel even when they might be turned in to the authorities. I don’t know if I’m that brave. 

And, of course, this book reminded me of many dystopian novels I’ve read. I Must Betray You is historical fiction, but many of the same tensions are present in dystopian fiction, particularly in relation to authoritarian governments. Think of The Giver: Jonas is even afraid to tell his parents some things. In The Hunger Games, none of the kids know who they can trust. In the Maze Runner books, the main character doubts even his own internal integrity. Perhaps that’s partly what makes I Must Betray You so chilling: it’s about a real time and place in history, and we can readily admit that the emotions and tensions really happened to many people. In a dystopian novel, it’s essentially science fiction and just a fictitious future “if.”

Cristian has a special relationship with his grandfather. What did you think of the grandfather? Are there other books or stories that come to mind that have a similarly close relationship between grandfather and grandchild? I seem to remember The Swallow’s Flight having a little of that dynamic, didn’t it?

Megan: I really liked Cristian’s grandfather, the one family member he truly admired and was willing to take such a risk for. He knew that becoming an informer wasn’t something his grandfather would approve of, but did it in hope of getting the medicine that would improve his grandfather’s health. But can he trust the authority he’s working for to keep his end of the bargain? It’s questionable. Yet, even though Cristian’s grandfather seemed to know the difficult position his grandson was in, his love for him was unconditional.

Yes, The Swallows Flight had that kind of relationship, if I remember correctly. Another strong uncompromising character I’m thinking of is Father Ten Boom in The Hiding Place. That takes place several decades earlier, but both men had no doubts about their convictions, even if it meant hardship from the oppressive governing authorities.

Betsy: Oh, that’s a great connection to the father in The Hiding Place. I hadn’t thought of that! 

Does I Must Betray You Have What It Takes?

Megan: So, Betsy, how does this compare to other Newbery or Printz award candidates or winners? Do you think it has a chance this year?

Betsy: As readers, we are pulled completely into Cristian’s world, fearing everyone, not knowing who to trust. The emotional tension in this novel is expertly done. In that sense, it reminds me a bit of Everything Sad Is Untrue (which won a Printz). Different emotions, but I really felt pulled into Nayeri’s story, moved to tears when I was reading it aloud. In another sense, this reminded me of Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary Schmidt (which was both a Newbery AND a Printz Honor): the protagonist is having to figure out his world without knowing who to trust. Lizzie Bright isn’t a book filled with fear like I Must Betray You, but both boys are struggling to figure out just who their families are and what the right thing to do is. I Must Betray You would hit the older end of the Newbery audience (up to age 14), but simultaneously straddle the YA market. I could see it getting some honor attention from either direction. It’s certainly garnered praise this year: starred reviews from Booklist, School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus. It’s a New York Times best seller…. clearly we’re not the only—or the first—people to talk about this book. I’d say it’s distinctive, and I think it’s distinctive in a way that really resonates with our current culture. We might not be living in a Soviet-occupied country, but the nature of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, accusations of media misinformation, and other current events have people on edge and not sure who to trust. Thus, I Must Betray You feels very current.

Megan: It definitely feels current. We read books about the struggles of World War II and they seem so long ago, but the end of the Cold War happened in our lifetime, Betsy. One thing that makes this a great book is that there is a clear distinction between good and evil, and even though the motives and relationships are complex within families and neighborhoods, Cristian’s conscience clearly knows that betrayal is wrong, even if it is apparently for the right reasons. (I wonder if his name, a variation of Christian, is intentional?) He has no peace while he is compromising with the enemy, and would rather defend the hope of freedom. I was also thinking of the uprising in Les Miserables, while we’re comparing classic literature. Such stories make me wonder if I would have such boldness…but I trust that God will supply me with the courage I need in whatever circumstances He places me.

Betsy: I appreciated the clear distinction between good and evil, too; it’s accompanied by a sincere wrestling with when and how to draw that line, a recognition that the right thing to do is often the hardest thing to do? Readers, have you read I Must Betray You? What did you think?

[Please note, if you haven’t read this book, there are some troubling scenes. Save it for teens and, if in doubt after reading the earlier review, consider pre-reading it before handing it to younger teens.)

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Betsy Farquhar

Betsy is the Managing Editor at Redeemed Reader. When she reads ahead for you, she uses sticky notes instead of book darts and willfully dog ears pages even in library books. Betsy is a fan of George MacDonald, robust book discussions, and the Oxford comma. She lives with her husband and their three children in the beautiful Southeast.

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  1. Meredith on January 27, 2023 at 10:30 am

    I Must Betray You was one of my favorite reads of 2022. The tension, as you stated, was palpable, and Cristians’s growth as a character was so profound. I would be happy to see this one win the Newbery or at least an honor. The other book I wish would be considered is The Patron Thief of Bread, by Lindsay Eagar, although I fear that one would be a long shot.
    Meredith Leigh Burton, author of Song of the Sea.

    • Janie Cheaney on January 28, 2023 at 4:44 am

      I didn’t get around to reading The Patron Thief of Bread (it was so long!) but from the buzz it probably has a shot, however long.

    • Betsy Farquhar on January 28, 2023 at 5:25 am

      I haven’t read The Patron Thief of Bread either! My library doesn’t have it… but maybe if it gets a shiny sticker on Monday, they’ll order it ;-).

  2. Rachel on January 28, 2023 at 3:59 pm

    I thought it was very good! However I agree there were troubling scenes. I was thinking in my school library I would probably place it as high school age.

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