Historical Fiction

Reading Pathway: Ruta Sepetys

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Neha Patel

Staff Writer

Neha is an editor living in Dallas, TX who reads a little more than her optometrist would like. She works fulltime as a medical editor but also loves proofreading and copyediting all types of fiction on the side as well as conducting sensitivity/authenticity reads for Indian characters and Hinduism. When she's not reading or editing, she's writing her fantasy novel, bookstagramming at @bookishdesi, or collecting records. More at neha-patel.com

One author I recommend time and time again is Ruta Sepetys. Although her books are technically categorized as young adult (YA) historical fiction, anyone can read her stories. Known as the “Seeker of Lost Stories,” each of her books focuses on a moment in time that has been left off the pages of history books. Whether it is life in a Soviet work camp or under a brutal dictator, Sepetys brings these moments to life with characters who seem like people we know.

I’ve been reading her books for years, and back in 2019, was able to see her live when she was promoting The Fountains of Silence. During the discussion, I learned that Sepetys, as a Lithuania American, was driven to write about forgotten moments in time because she never heard the country of ancestors and its struggles spoken about in public discourse. In fact, Lithuania as a country was only included on maps after the fall of the Soviet Union.

If you enjoy reading historical fiction and learning about countries and people who rarely enter popular discussion, then I strongly recommend reading one of Sepetys’s books. Each book is meticulously researched, and Sepetys takes her time speaking to people who lived during the times she wants to write about. I’ve read plenty of historical fiction, but sometimes it’s hard for me to evoke an image of a place I know nothing about. Because of the level of detail and nuance Sepetys employs in her writing, I always get a clear picture of the setting from her.

Sepetys has written five books, with her latest book being published this year (2022). Although I would recommend enjoying all of them, here are three that can help you get started with her work.

Between shades of Gray cover

Between Shades of Gray

This is Sepetys’s first novel and the one I’d recommend you read first. In Between Shades of Gray, Sepetys goes into the history of Lithuania and even includes elements of her own family’s experience with the Soviet Union. In the novel, Lina is a teenager whose family is dragged to Siberia and forced to dig for beets in a brutal work camp. Although the situation is cruel, Sepetys takes time to show the humanity in even the harshest environments. In the camp, Lina finds solace in her art and makes it her mission to document everything in the camp.

cover of out of the easy

Out of the Easy

The second book I would recommend is, well, Sepetys’s second book: Out of the Easy. As you might have guessed from the title, the story will bring you to the Big Easy, or New Orleans, Louisiana, in the 1950s. The French Quarter is a hub of secrets, and young Josie is in the thick of it as the daughter of a sex worker. Josie wants to get out of New Orleans, but her plans are thwarted when she becomes entangled in the investigation of a murder. This is a wonderful story about decisions and secrets.

Cover image of "I Must Betray You" by Ruta Sepetys.

I Must Betray You

The final book I would recommend as an introduction to her work is Sepetys’s latest story, I Must Betray You, which will transport you to Romania in 1989. The country is the under the grasp of a dangerous, insidious dictator who controls all aspects of life under the guise of nationalism. Cristian is a teenager who just wants to be a writer and ask his crush out on a date. But when he’s tasked to become an informant for the secret police, everything Cristian knows about his family and friends comes into question. But 1989 is a year of change, and Cristian is determined to help his people find their voice.

If you want more recommendations on which authors to read next, check out our Reading Pathways on Taylor Jenkins Reid and Helen Oyeyemi.