ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2018 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 64, No.3 - Fall 2018
Editor of this issue:Almantas Samalavičius

Book Review:

Putrius, Birutë. The Last Book Smuggler. Birchwood Press, Los Angeles, 2018. Soft covers, 366 pages

Birute Putrius lives in California. Her fiction, poetry, and translations have appeared in numerous publications and her short stories have been optioned for film. The Last Book Smuggler is her second novel. The back cover presents this book as a fictional novel. It states that in 1902 Lithuania a group of rebels, armed with books triumphs against the mighty Russian Empire. “Part folktale, part thriller, The Last Book Smuggler tells the story of Ada and her grandfather Viktoras, an old book smuggler exhausted by his forty-year battle to keep his language alive despite the Russian Empire’s attempts to destroy it”. As the grandfather retires from his mission, he is replaced by others, including a fine young man named Jonas. Viktoras is the paternal figure for the novel, but the main character is his granddaughter Ada, with dozens of other characters in supporting roles.

The novel is based on the author’s grandfather who was a book smuggler. There is no question in my mind that Ada is the author herself in disguise. Her first novel – Lost Birds – was clearly much closer to the author’s own life experiences, portrayed by Irene Matas and her friends who arrived as children in Chicago after World War II. “As Irena and her friends come of age in the sixties, they begin to grow beyond their close, but insular neighborhood, but still feel drawn to the past”. 

The Last Book Smuggler is the tangible and positive evidence of that pull to the past. Much energy and effort had been invested to recreate the political, cultural, and rural setting for the novel. All of this comes to life with the introduction of dozens of characters that are dispersed throughout the novel. Of course, there are good guys, bad guys, winners and losers. Women are not left out of the drama and they play a very important role in the drama that unfolds. Back then there were no newspapers in Lithuanian language, no phones, no internet, but people living in the village had their means of sharing information. The speed was slow, but the end results have not changed much since then. The book does not name it as such, but the social media back then could be called “gossipnet”, very popular at larger community gatherings, like after church events, the market place, bars, and farm chores. The various characters provided the substance for the “gossipnet”. There were two young people in love, but it was not blessed by their parents, so they ended in different parts of the world – Russia and America. Toward the end of the book they reconnect back in their home village. There is father Jurkus, the moral leader of the book-smuggling operation, who declared Viktoras as the last book smuggler in Lithuania. There are portrayals of suspenseful operations, involving people that were already introduced in the novel earlier. The reader can really get wound up in the risky, treacherous operations taking place between East Prussia and Russia-occupied and oppressed Lithuania. 

Various traditional events and feasts typical for rural communities in the second half of the nineteenth come to life in an authentic fashion. This must be based on oral history that the author heard from her own father as well as her own studies of Lithuania’s history and culture for that time period. Also wellshown are the very distinct social class differences between pheasants and Polonized Lithuanians, distancing themselves from their ethic roots and picking up Polish language, habits and a sense of superiority. With only one exception, a Russian captain in charge of tracking down the book smugglers, all book characters are Lithuanians. Some of them are distancing themselves from the peasant class and identifying with the socially more astute upper-class Poles. A curtain call typically happens at the end of some event, such as an opera or a concert. A curtain call at the end of a novel would be a novel event and I won’t go there. However, I do want to mention some of the key players in this suspenseful novel: Katryna, Aleksas, Elzbieta, Emilija, Jurgis Bartkus, etc. They all contributed to the tapestry of Sapnai village during the forty years of press oppression in Lithuania. The disastrous Russian-Japanese war of 1905 led to lifting the ban on press with Latin alphabet. It also was a good place to end this novel. It is my understanding that another novel, a sequel, is in the works. More than like it will start with a wedding of Ada and Jonas. The planned wedding in the current novel had to be postponed for the customary year of mourning, following the death of the last book smuggler. According to an interview with the author, the new book will cover the period of 1906 to the Declaration of Lithuania’s independence in 1918 (“Draugas”, May 8, 2018). 

Elsewhere – in “goodreads” – Birute Putrius honestly talks about the second book jitters. “When I put my first book, Lost Birds, out into the world, there was so much I didn’t know about marketing, selling, arranging readings, FB ads, etc., that it made no difference to me. I just blithely stepped off the cliff and hoped for the best. And to my surprise, it sold books and I made new friends and was invited to the readings and word of mouth seemed to build. It was all more than I had expected and I was grateful”. With the second book she has learned about the potholes in the road and the ways she could promote the book. She adds that all of that is so hard for someone who loves to sit at home alone and write, someone who is shy and doesn’t like to promote herself, someone who’s uneasy in those situations. In my opinion, she does not need to change what she enjoys doing, but needs to discover a new partnership in the field of marketing and book promotion industry. Stay away from cliffs and good luck in new partnerships! 

Romualdas Kriaučiűnas