“The Fountains of Silence” intertwines narrative and history

Allie Feitzinger, Editor-in-Chief

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Set in post-war Spain under the dictatorial government of General Francisco Franco, New York Times best-selling author Ruta Sepetys’s newest young adult historical fiction novel “The Fountains of Silence” engrosses and ensnares readers with a riveting narrative, while simultaneously challenging them to consider a tumultuous history which is often ignored.

The book, released this week by Penguin Random House, features a variety of multi-dimensional characters, including Ana Moreno and Daniel Matheson. Teenage Ana and her family navigate the consequences of being born a daughter of Republicans, carrying the burden of seemingly impossible dreams. Daniel is an aspiring photojournalist from Texas traveling with his family, an outsider slowly peeling away the gilded illusion of Spain presented to American tourists. The pair meet at the hotel where Ana works, and are immediately intrigued by one another, but as Daniel catches glimpses of Ana’s Spain through his camera lens, he captures more questions than answers.

The cover of Ruta Sepetys’ newest novel “The Fountains of Silence” sets protagonist Ana Moreno against a sepia backdrop of Spain. Sepetys told the Paly Voice she spent four years researching Spanish history prior to receiving the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Fellowship for literature in 2015, finally beginning to write in September of 2016. Her research process began with reading of nonfiction works about Spain under Franco before she interviewed those with experiences relevant to the novel. “I started interviewing many, many people—a doctor who served at the Inclusa for 40 years, the tailor who made the suit of lights for 15 years for the matadors,” Sepetys said. Photo: Penguin Random House

Sepetys, author of “Between Shades of Gray” and “Salt to the Sea” and Carnegie Medal winner, told The Paly Voice in a phone call in September that she committed to writing the book in 2011, following a book tour in Spain for a previous book, to illuminate a dark period in Spanish history that is relatively unknown to most outsiders.

“When I first toured Spain, the Spanish people showed so much empathy and compassion for underrepresented history, and the underrepresented history featured in my book, and they were so compassionate,” Sepetys said. “When we began thinking about it, it made me curious about their history.”

According to Sepetys, she realized there was a story to be told as she was asking Spanish natives about their history.

“They immediately withdrew, and said, ‘Oh, it’s much too difficult for an outsider to understand. And also, it’s very, very sad,’” Sepetys said. “When they said it was painful, it really broke my heart, because I truly believe that if we don’t understand one another’s history, we’re constantly judging each other. And so I was determined on my own to look into it.”

As is evident in the final chapters of the novel, many Spaniards opted to “agree to forget” a period of Spanish history prior to democratization, according to Sepetys. The author went on to say that she wanted to respect their approach but also educate her readers.

“What if we forget history?” Sepetys asked. “What are the implications of that, of forgetting history? But also, the big question for me was: what right do we have to history other than our own? And I was so incredibly conscious that I’m an outsider and that I will forever be an outsider. And if the people of Spain, Basque and Catalonia have decided this is something that they don’t want to speak of, I think we need to respect that. However, if we understand what happened in their country, then we can better respect their approach to their history.”

Sepetys believes that the understanding of history is imperative to improving relationships.

“I really have this theory, that if we know about one another’s history, our international relations, our relationships, will be much more productive and respectful,” Sepetys said.

Mystery lines the pages of “The Fountains of Silence.” Beginning as subtle questions, each intrigue emerges slowly, catalyzing readers’ curiosity as it begins to develop. 

One such mystery involving the Inclusa orphanage seeps into the storylines of several of the characters, though it’s most heavily included in Purificación’s narrative. Puri, Ana’s cousin, wrestles with dueling concepts of duty and truth as she works at the orphanage, slowly coming to the realization that all is not as it seems. Her belief in the idea that “We are prettier with our mouths shut” begins to unravel as revelations challenge her beliefs and her idealistic view of post-war Spain.

“‘Sometimes the truth is dangerous. … But we should search for it nonetheless,” says Antonio, Ana’s uncle. Each of the characters wrestles with their own truths, asking, as Julia, Ana’s sister does, “What is the cost of silence?” Universal truths emerge from this question, as the characters face both the danger and necessity of the truth when silence is encouraged. 

What begin as small mysteries compound into a tangle of conspiracies, some brimming with heartbreak and injustice. The true heart-rending, however, occurs when the reader considers that many of the issues presented in the novel were, in fact, realities under Franco. 

The presentation of this history allows for easy digestion by readers while also challenging them to understand with the often-overlooked past of another country. Narratives from youthful perspectives provide readers with the opportunity to empathize with the characters. The nuanced inclusion of the theme of silence throughout, for instance, provides insight and the ability to empathize with Spain’s response to its past trauma.

The book is an entertaining mechanism by which to educate oneself and expand one’s perspectives. 

“The past gives us context to the present, and to understand the present, we often look to the past,” Sepetys said. “And so, in my own selfish way, I do believe that historical fiction can play a role in that. … My novels sit on the shoulders of nonfiction, and, at its best, fiction and nonfiction work in concert.”

Sepetys said she hopes her new novel will provide a younger generation an understanding of history, especially as the popularity of the subject continues to decline. “You and your generation … you are the ones who are going to carry our fading story into the future.”

The story is engaging, though perhaps a book which is consistently returned to rather than a one-sit read, employing slow revelations rather than fast-paced action.

Throughout the story, heavy-hitting truths are tempered by the budding romance between Daniel and Ana, who struggle with the plight that all star-crossed lovers experience. The relationship between an idealistic outsider and a hopeful-yet-wary local illustrates the relationship between those within a situation and those glimpsing it from the outside, again challenging readers to consider their perspective on a foreign history. 

Fans of historical fiction are sure to enjoy the novel, though I encourage readers less familiar with this genre to engage their minds with this book, as well. 

Readers interested in hearing from the author can attend a free event hosted by Linden Tree Books 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Oct. 10 at the Rinconada Library. Space is limited, and spots can be reserved here.