84 pages 2 hours read

Ruta Sepetys

I Must Betray You

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2022

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Summary and Study Guide


Ruta Sepetys’s I Must Betray You is a young adult historical novel. Published in 2022, it is based on events that took place in Romania in November and December 1989 as dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was ousted. The novel is told from the perspective of a 17-year-old living in Bucharest who faces difficult decisions involving loyalty to his family and who must discern what price he is willing to pay for his freedom.

Sepetys, a Lithuanian American and daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, has written four other young adult novels that similarly explore historical events. These titles have received dozens of awards, including a Carnegie Medal for Salt to the Sea (2016). Her novels are widely enjoyed by adults and teens alike and frequently appear on the New York Times Best Sellers list.

This guide refers to the 2022 hardcover version published by Philomel Books, Penguin Random House.

Plot Summary

Cristian Florescu, the narrator, is a 17-year-old student living in Bucharest, Romania, with his parents, older sister, Cici, and grandfather, whom he calls Bunu. The communist government wishes to obtain information about the Van Dorns, a family of American diplomats in whose home Cristian’s mother works as a housekeeper. A government agent promises Cristian medication for Bunu’s leukemia in exchange for information about the Americans. Cristian agrees and is given the code name “Oscar.” (Between chapters of Cristian’s narrative, Sepetys places reports by the Securitate which detail the interactions between agents and informers and contain information obtained via surveillance.)

The oppressive dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu controls Romania, where it is illegal to voice any dissent against the government. Conditions throughout the country are dire, with food in short supply and electricity unreliable. Government surveillance is ubiquitous, and citizens live in constant fear that their words or actions could make them a target. In the weeks that follow his agreeing to inform, Cristian is plagued by guilt, certain that one of his family members will sense his anxious state and discover that he is betraying them. He worries most about Bunu, an outspoken critic of Ceauşescu’s regime, and Cici, a seamstress with occasional dealings on the illicit market. Cristian becomes close to Liliana Pavel, a schoolmate for whom he holds romantic feelings. The two meet in secret in the stairwell of Liliana’s apartment and attend “movie nights” in which illegal American films are shown. The two share an illegal Coca-Cola and difficult-to-obtain chocolate.

Cristian provides information about the contents of the Van Dorns’ home, specifically about the bedroom of Dan, their teenage son. Dan provides Cristian with a glimpse into American culture, sharing home videos Dan’s friends sent him from the US. Likewise, Cristian accompanies Dan to the American Library, where he reads issues of Time magazine. Through this magazine, Cristian learns that Hungary has overthrown its communist regime. Cristian is summoned to meet with the government agent (whom he nicknames “Paddle Hands”) and provide written and signed statements about what he discovers from the Van Dorns.

Liliana accuses Cristian of informing on her father, who was fired from his job as a grocer. Through this job, Mr. Pavel obtained the illegal can of soda, which Liliana then shared with Cristian. Liliana is adamant that Cristian cannot be trusted, and she severs ties with him. A second blow follows soon after with the death of Bunu. Not the victim of leukemia, he is killed in a violent beating for his anti-government position. Cristian is shocked to learn that Bunu had not suffered from cancer at all but instead had been slowly poisoned by Securitate (secret police) agents through the coffee he drank. Bunu’s death devastates Cristian but also rallies him to act against Ceauşescu’s oppression.

Cristian grows frustrated by the lack of action against communism in Romania, especially as it comes to an end in neighboring Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. He develops a plan to pass his notebook to Mr. Van Dorn. The notebook contains Cristian’s poems and musings, revealing details about the harsh conditions in Romania and painting a picture of Ceauşescu’s ruthless rule. Cristian hopes that Mr. Van Dorn will use the notebook to make the United States aware of these conditions. He plans to ensure that Mr. Van Dorn will find the notebook by wrapping it as if it were a gift. He knows its contents are dangerous and could mean death if it is connected to him.

A turning point comes with a protest in Timişoara, a city west of Bucharest, upon the removal of a religious leader by the government. Cristian is buoyed by the protest, hopeful that it will lead to further resistance throughout Romania. As he considers how he might join a potential revolution, he comes to believe that Cici is an informer. He follows her one morning to discover her meeting with Paddle Hands. He is outraged and refuses to listen to her explanations. In the days that follow, Cristian refuses to speak to Cici, convinced she spied on their family.

Cristian’s friend Luca has information that anti-communist university students plan to stage a protest during a speech by Ceauşescu. The protest indeed occurs, successfully driving Ceauşescu off the stage, leading to a march through the Bucharest streets. The march becomes dangerous as the military acts to squelch it. Luca is among those who are shot and injured, and Cristian is captured. He discovers Liliana among the protestors who have been thrown into a van headed for Jilava, a notorious prison.

At the prison, Cristian is beaten but maintains his resolve to resist. As he and Liliana are transferred to a youth detention center, he escapes. He attempts to speak to Mr. Van Dorn at the American Embassy but is denied entry. Instead, with the help of a local teen with Western sympathies and underground connections, he informs Liliana and Luca’s families of their circumstances and then locates Luca in a hospital. The revolt continues and the Ceauşescus flee.

At the hospital, Cristian also finds Cici. Still outraged, he refuses to speak with her or listen to her justification for working with Paddle Hands. He does, however, ask her to use her connections to free Liliana. He finally returns home, severely injured and exhausted.

The Ceauşescus are captured, returned to Romania, and tried and executed on Christmas Day. Cristian is overwhelmed with emotion, especially as portions of his notebook are broadcast on the radio. Cici’s whereabouts are unknown, but Luca and Liliana are safe. Cristian and Liliana meet in the stairwell on Christmas Day, as they had so many times previously, and look forward to a bright future.

The novel closes with an Epilogue set decades later. Cristian reveals that Cici was killed soon after he saw her at the hospital. He then shares information he later obtained from the Securitate reports on his family. He discovers not only that Cici’s intentions in informing were to obtain passports so that the two of them could flee the country, but also that his mother was a government loyalist who had also informed. Now a high school teacher, Cristian is urged by his students to write a book about his experiences. He does so and plans to give a copy of the book to Paddle Hands after learning his identity.