The Story That Cannot Be Told is a YA novel by J. Kasper Kramer about Ileana, an eleven-year-old girl who lives in Bucharest, Romania, in the summer of 1989. And right here, I need to make a point, because to an adult the tone of this story will be different than for the age group it’s aimed at. An adult will remember that 1989 was the year of the Communist revolutions in eastern Europe, and may even remember that Romania’s took place rather late in the year, in December, and was quite bloody compared to the peaceful revolutions in East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. So already, an adult knows that anything bad that happens in the book as a result of the government will have an end point. But a sixth grader, say, reading this book will most likely not know that (nor indeed, do the characters). So where an adult is reading this book with anticipation, a younger reader probably is in true suspense.
Anyway, the country is ruled by a Communist government that restricts its citizens’ lives in all sorts of ways: where they can work, what they can read, the music they can listen to, the TV shows they can watch. Ileana’s father is a university professor with a love for literature, her uncle is a poet, and her mother has secretly been helping the uncle send his anti-Communist poems abroad. But now the uncle has been captured by the feared Securitate for his anti-revolutionary activities and a strange “electrician” has come to Ileana’s apartment to check on the wiring, although he spent most of his time installing something in the telephone wires. The parents believe (correctly) that their apartment has been bugged and the Securitate suspect them of assisting the uncle. Ileana’s father even rips up her tome of stories that until now he had always encouraged her to work on.
In the hope that if they’re taken by the Securitate, she will at least be safe, Ileana’s parents send her alone on a train to the place where her mother grew up, a tiny village deep in the Carpathian mountains that Ileana has never been to, where she will stay with the grandparents she’s never met. At first, the transition from city life to rural life is difficult. Ileana’s grandparents are weird, believing in all sorts of superstitions, and constantly working to feed the animals on their farm. The kids in the village are mean, and the place hardly has any books to read. Soon, however, Ileana makes friends with Gabi, a girl her age with a lame leg who can nevertheless hit any target with her slingshot.
Things seem to be getting better, until one day when she finds her uncle hiding out in a nearby abandoned church, having somehow escaped the Securitate and fled to the village, the one place he knew of where he might be able to remain hidden. He’s sick and starved, all the bones in his right hand are broken, and he doesn’t recognize Ileana when he first sees her. But Ileana realizes somebody is leaving him baskets of water and food at night and she starts adding food she sneaks from her grandparents’ house.
Securitate agents arrive in the village, trying to find out if anybody has information on Ileana’s uncle. Ileana’s the only one who knows about him, though, and she’s not talking. Well, also whoever’s leaving her uncle the baskets of food. And she might have mentioned something to Gabi. An incident between one of the Securitate men and the village butcher leads to the butcher having a heart attack, and things turn hostile between the villagers and the agents. Of course, if only anyone had information leading to the capture of the man they’re hunting for, the Securitate men would leave. Can Ileana help her uncle escape detection, and dare she do so if it would put Gabi or her grandparents in danger?
That’s actually a fairly bare-bones description–this is a book dense with plot and meaning. For a book aimed at middle schoolers, it’s also quite intense. It really captures the paranoia of living in a totalitarian state. The writing is absolutely beautiful, full of Romanian legends and stories and customs, and Ileana herself is fierce and brave (but only sometimes) and utterly believable and charming as our eleven-year old narrator. For the right young reader, this will be a great read, maybe even life-changing. But not all middle schoolers will be ready for some of the truly scary suspenseful scenes. As for adults, I would recommend it to anybody who loves beautiful writing and wants to learn about this period of history. The Story That Cannot Be Told is one of the best books I’ve read this year.