This enthralling work of historical fiction casts a sharp spotlight on Spain under the Fascist rule of Francisco Franco, with a particular focus on the suffering of children and young people whose parents were imprisoned, tortured and executed for their Republican sympathies. In the same gripping style she used in 2016 novel "Salt to the Sea," Sepetys tells a broad story of historical tragedy with an immediacy and drama through the personal stories of a handful of vividly drawn invented characters.
As the novel begins, 18-year-old Daniel Matheson, an aspiring photojournalist, has just arrived in Madrid in the summer of 1957 with his parents. He is fluent in Spanish thanks to his mother, a native of Spain; his father, a Dallas oil executive, wants to do business with Franco. Inspired by the work of photojournalist Robert Capa, Daniel wants to go deep with his photography, and almost immediately gets in trouble with the civil guard.
Through his friendship with Ana, a hotel chambermaid, Daniel gradually learns of the poverty, fear and scars inflicted by Franco's cruelty and repression – and the survivors' reluctance to trust outsiders with their stories. Ana's parents, both teachers, were executed for daring to propose a Montessori school, an education option outside the Catholic Church. Ana's sister Julia, a new mother, works long hours as a seamstress, scarring her hands sewing capes for matadors; her brother Rafael works both at a slaughterhouse and a cemetery. The three siblings live in poverty with Julia's husband and baby in a shack outside Madrid, desperately trying to keep up with the rent payments for their mother's burial plot; if they don't, her remains will be exhumed, chopped up and buried in a mass grave.
Against the backdrop of Daniel's budding romance with Ana, there are compelling subplots including the tragic story of Rafael's friend Fuga, who endured the torture of boarding school with him and dreams of becoming a matador, a dangerous dream which requires illegally sneaking into fields at night to practice bullfighting. Any loose plot threads are tied up neatly in a postscript, set 18 years later at the time of Franco's death, and the dawn of a new Spain.
Sepetys was first drawn to the historical period, for her first novel not based on threads of her own heritage, by a 2011 New York Times article headlined "Spain Confronts Decades of Pain Over Lost Babies," the shocking story of Catholic orphanages and hospital maternity wards and their role in stealing an estimated 300,000 children and babies over decades from their parents in order to adopt them out, often for exorbitant sums, to "better" parents.
She intersperses quotes from official U.S. correspondence written during the Franco years to great effect and includes a glossary, an extensive bibliography and an author's note at the end with more information about her extensive research, including a few photos. Sepetys, winner of the Carnegie Medal, wrote "Out of the Easy" and "Between Shades of Gray"; "Salt to the Sea" told the story of the sinking by a Soviet submarine of the Wilhelm Gustloff on Jan. 30, 1945, killing an estimated 9,000 people, more than half of them children, during the evacuation across the Baltic Sea of soldiers and civilians fleeing the Soviet advance.
Victoria Schwab offers another enthralling ghost story, this one set in Paris, featuring Cassidy Blake and her travels with her ghost-hunting parents for their reality TV show. (The first novel, "City of Ghosts," took place in Edinburgh.) Cassidy was saved from drowning by a ghost named Jacob, an experience that left her able to "cross into the Veil" and send spirits of the restless dead moving on. As her parents busy themselves with filming their reality show, they have no idea their daughter is having death-defying adventures with her ghostly friend in the netherworld.
Schwab offers young readers an intriguing taste of Paris, as Cassidy visits The Eiffel Tower and the Tuileries royal gardens and samples French baked goods including pain au chocolat before venturing underground to the Catacombs, an ossuary deep underground, reached by a winding spiral staircase and containing 6 million bodies moved from elsewhere. The mystery and suspense this time involves the troubled spirit of a boy lost underground while exploring the "tunnel of bones."