Madrid, 1957. Daniel and his parents have traveled from Dallas so that his father can secure an oil deal in Spain. Until recently, the fascist dictator Francisco Franco has kept the country closed to foreign business, but now the U.S. government and major corporations are trickling back in. Daniel is eager to use the new camera that his mother gave him to capture the story of contemporary Spain. He plans to use the pictures in a photo contest he has entered in hopes that his winning photo-essay will help him to gain entry to the most prestigious journalism schools. Daniel’s whole world is photography, but his father wants him to follow in his own footsteps in the oil business. Daniel has a good eye and snaps photos of everything, but when he takes them to Miguel’s shop for developing, the older man warns him to use caution: this is not the United States. There are many dangerous secrets.
Daniel begins to feel the weight of the secrets when he falls for the beautiful hotel employee, Ana. She tells him that she cannot have dinner with him because the hotel does not allow the staff to interact with clients, but he suspects that it is more than that. Ana lives with her sister, Julia, her husband, Antonio, their baby, and their brother, Rafa, who works in a slaughterhouse. In his off time, Rafa helps his friend, Fuga, train to become the greatest matador Spain has ever seen. While waiting for his opportunity to find fame in the bullring, Fuga digs graves for a living.
Ana’s cousin Purificación works in the orphanage. There are so many orphans since the war, and Puri loves all of the children and hopes to find good homes for them. Puri wants to be perfect; she never asks questions, and she truly believes that Franco loves the people of Spain and is doing his best for them. Lately, however, Puri’s world has begun to get tangled with Fuga’s.
Ruta Sepetys brings us another stunning tale from hidden history, just as she did in her superb first book, Between Shades of Gray, the story of her grandparents in Stalin’s Russia. Americans are generally uninformed about Francisco Franco’s regime that lasted for decades in Spain, partly because it began at the same time that the United States and most of the rest of the world were becoming embroiled in World War II. After that conflict ended, we were all engaged in putting our countries and our lives back together, and yet Franco continued in power for years. He did not die until 1975, and some of his policies lasted until the 1980s.
Sepetys fills Daniel with this sort of benevolent ignorance. He is optimistic, looking forward to college and a successful career, with an American belief that if we all see something bad, we will challenge it and fix it. His biggest problem is that his father doesn’t approve of his career choice, so it takes him a while to understand that Ana’s problems are overwhelming and complex, and he only narrowly avoids ruining the lives of people he cares about.
Although the plot is propelled by the forbidden romance that is growing between Daniel and Ana, the novel is carefully researched. Sepetys inserts selections from government documents between the chapters, showing what diplomats and bureaucrats knew—and didn’t know—about the Franco regime. Today, many people wonder whether American investment in Spain at the time may have allowed the dictator to remain in power longer. Sepetys herself wonders how far an outsider should go to tell the tale of another culture, especially in light of one particular shocking secret from which the Spanish people are still struggling to recover.
Beautiful writing, an absorbing story, and the slow revelation of one nation’s hidden horror make The Fountains of Silence a compelling novel. These are stories that we wish were not true, but we must expose them so that we will have our own eyes open to the terrifying extent of human depravity, and to be aware of those around us who are forced to be silent. Furthermore, we need to open these wounds to sunlight so that they may heal.
This novel, as well as everything else by Ruta Sepetys, is highly recommended.
Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which will be released in October, 2019. Get your pre-orders in now. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.