During communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s last years in Romania, people secretly gathered to hear or watch American media late into the night. Popular movies like Die Hard and music by Bruce Springsteen profoundly impacted Romania’s isolated population—serving as proof that another way of life existed. A life where food shelves weren’t empty, where men and women spoke freely, where people could choose a career or a place to live.
American “entertainment” helped them envision a better life, and it gave them courage when, in 1989, the opportunity for freedom finally came.
One such window on freedom today—I Must Betray You, Carnegie Medal winner Ruta Sepetys’ new “crossover” novel (read by teens and adults). In it, Sepetys brings the above Romanian history to life through high school student Cristian Florescu. Cristian writes,
In reality, my desire to speak English had nothing to do with fighting our enemies. How many enemies did we have, anyway? I honestly didn’t know. The truth was, English class was full of smart, quiet girls. Girls I pretended not to notice. And if I spoke English, I could better understand song lyrics that I heard illegally on Voice of America broadcasts. Illegal, yes. Many things were illegal in Romania—including my thoughts and my notebook.
In some ways, Cristian lives the life of any teenager. He goes to school, hangs out with friends, and secretly hopes for a date with Liliana, the girl with dark eyes down the street. But in Bucharest under Communist rule, Cristian’s mother works as a housekeeper for the U.S. ambassador’s family. Soon, a Securitate agent coerces him to spy on the Americans, and eventually, Cristian’s agony over betraying friends turns to outward resistance. But as violent protests sweep Romania, Cristian faces life-and-death decisions, struggling to protect those he loves even as he tries to win freedom for his country.
I Must Betray You has its downsides. The first half moves slowly and includes a few curse words. In one scene, Florescu and his girlfriend embrace alone. But by the book’s midsection, action comes fast and hard, and Sepetys brings Cristian’s tale to a satisfying end.
Adults and teens hungry for other helpful “windows” on God’s world might consider Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters. Written roughly 50 years after Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Gaskell’s tale captures similar delights—19th-century country life, class conflict, and of course, romantic love. Main character Molly Gibson doesn’t have the spunk of Elizabeth Bennett, but her kindness and steady character make her a lovable heroine—even as her stepsister complicates her path to true love. (Anglophiles and rom-com lovers should check out the BBC dramatized version as well.)
Gaskell professed Unitarianism, so you won’t find the gospel in her writing. Plus, she died before finishing the book, and the end (written by Frederick Greenwood) lacks some luster. But in our current LGBTQ+ confusion, Gaskell’s presentation of honorable sexual love between one man and one woman appears all the more lovely.
Finally, adults and teens who enjoy Sherlock Holmes or the Hardy Boys might pick up Dorothy Sayers’ mystery, Whose Body? The novel only lightly touches Sayers’ Anglican beliefs, and it does include a few curse words and significant alcohol use. Still, readers do see her Christian worldview at work.
In this, the first of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, a London gentleman finds a dead body in his bathroom. Hours before, another man across town, Sir Reuben Levy, goes missing before a large financial deal. Wimsey, a young gentleman with nothing better to do, sniffs his way onto the case. He then doggedly tracks the truth of these two mysteries across England, despite imminent danger, with the help of his friend, Inspector Parker at Scotland Yard, and his trusty butler.
One clue to Sayers’ Christian themes at work—watch out for those who make claims such as “knowledge of good and evil … is removable.” Set in Europe after World War I, such comments touch on materialistic viewpoints that led to the social Darwinism of World War II … and still plague us today.
At times, America’s cultural landscape now seems as dark as any dystopian novel or dictatorship. But wise entertainment from other times and places can still provide a fresh vision of God’s world and His truth.