Today I’m excited to start of a very special blog tour for The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys. While I adored the book – set in Spain in the 1950s and looking at life under Franco through the eyes of a young American photojournalist – this won’t be a review post. I got to attend a fantastic event with Ruta, and talk to her about retelling history. You can find The Fountains of Silence on Goodreads here, and copies are available from Bookshop here (affiliate link). Massive thanks to Penguin and Nina Douglas for sending me a copy of the book and having me as part of the blog tour!
SUMMARY: Madrid, 1957. Daniel, young, wealthy and unsure of his place in the world, views the city through the lens of his camera. Ana, a hotel maid whose family is suffering under the fascist dictatorship of General Franco. Lives and hearts collide as they unite to uncover the hidden darkness within the city. A darkness that could engulf them all . . . (from Penguin)
Ruta is one of the most beloved historical fiction writers out there. She won the Carnegie Medal in 2017, is published in 60 countries and even has a postage stamp with her face in Lithuania. She is again longlisted for the Carnegie Medal for The Fountains of Silence. The story is very much set in a crossover space, and can be read both as a YA novel and an adult one. Ruta believes that history helps human understanding, giving people a reason for things being the way they are. In her opinion, history helps compassion, and silence breeds misunderstanding. If history is not talked about, every person can create their own version of events.
But why write about the Franco regime? Ruta is Lithuanian-American, and her first novels had been about exploring her family history and identity, so Spanish history isn’t a very obvious choice for her. When she was touring Spain for her first book, Between Shades of Grey, she did a number of school visits. And those teens, readers of her debut novel, asked her whether she might take her expertise of writing historical novels and apply them to their own history. Because young Spanish people don’t know about their past. After Franco’s death in 1975, Spanish policy culminated in the Pact of Forgetting, which meant that the atrocities of the civil war and the ensuing regime were not discussed. The past was not reckoned with, not taught, and not talked about.
Her immediate reaction, as someone who is not connected to Spain at all, was that it was not her place to write this story. But the idea never left her, and once she found the right lens – that of a young American, raised by a Spanish mother, but with no knowledge of life in Spain – she decided to write the story after all. While her earlier novels had a family connection, based in Lithuania and Eastern Europe, allowing her to write them from the inside out, this one required a different approach. She wrote The Fountains of Silence from the outside in. Using an outside observer, she consciously chose to write an unreliable narrator, a tourist. This allowed her to tell the story from someone passing judgement over what he sees, and highlight that as a tourist, one only sees part of the story. And personally, I think this is a large part of what made The Fountains of Silence resonate so much with me. Seeing the struggle of someone trying to make sense of what he sees, of trying to figure out the full story from his perspective, but utterly failing to.
Ruta really is a huge history nerd at heart (or, a history hoe, as we call ourselves in my circle of friends). She collected a variety of items from the period, such as a travel brochure handed out on flights from the US to Spain in the 1950s. She has the original key to the room in the hotel Daniel stays at. She also found pieces of the guarda civil uniform of the period. All this helps her to create an immersive experience for her readers. In the book itself, she included bits of historical documents accompanying the story. And that is one of the things I loved most about the book: while reading this historical novel, telling a story and using history to illustrate it, these documents allowed me to get even more of a sense of the world. Ruta used these sources to show to the reader where the story came from. Because The Fountains of Silence is a book that is ultimately about the history in it, and not the explicit story.
By writing about a period that is not that far in the past, Ruta was able to refer to oral history. To talk to witnesses who lived through the Franco regime. One of the anecdotes she told us was that once she started publicly talking about the book she was writing, people approached her to tell her their stories. One of these was an old man, who had grown up in a boys’ home, and later become a bellboy at the Hilton Castellana, where the story is set. The stories he told her directly influenced the book, and readers can see him in the character Buttons, one of the most lovable in the story.