I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I have a PhD in history, specializing in the USSR, and back in the day, I taught courses like Western Civ and the 20th Century. I thought I knew my European history pretty well, but a YA novel just showed me a glaring gap in my knowledge. The Fountains of Silence is set in Spain, 1957, and it revealed to me how unaware I was of the oppressive fascist regime that existed in Spain until the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco in 1975. I mean, sure, I knew about the Spanish Civil War, seen as a dress rehearsal for WWII, the Falange versus Republicans, and I remember that the Soviet Union supported the Republican forces against the fascists. This is key, of course, because the US has always been more comfortable with fascism than communism. In Cincinnati, where I grew up, there is a replica of the statue of Romulus and Remus at the entrance to one of our parks, a gift to the people of Cincinnati from Mussolini. And I have heard the tale many times (including from an archivist who would have known) that a mid-1930s yearbook from one of our fine Catholic high schools was dedicated to Francisco Franco. Catholics seem a little too comfortable with fascism, too. So I guess the long and short of it is that after WWII and the defeat of Mussolini and Hitler, the US’s relationship with Spain was … complicated. On one hand, we had fought a war to defeat fascism, on the other hand at least Spain wasn’t communist and no one seemed very interested in opening up conflict in Europe. No, the feeling seems to have been that we should try to make nice with Franco and use economics as a carrot to encourage opening up an incredibly repressive society.
Ruta Sepetys does a superb job of setting this stage for her readers, demonstrating through her characters and plot exactly how terrifying the Franco regime was. Most of the story is set over the course of a month in Madrid and the characters are mainly teenagers — both Spanish and American — with a few adults thrown in for good measure. Everyone has some secret, but the secrets of the teens who are native to Spain are far more dangerous and serious than those of their American counterparts. One of the main characters is Texan Daniel Matheson, an 18-year-old with dreams of becoming a photo-journalist rather than following in the footsteps of his father, a successful oilman. The other main character is Ana Torres Moreno, a teen who works at Madrid’s Hilton Castellano Hotel. The Castellano is the premier hotel for foreigners visiting Spain, and Ana, who dreams of leaving Spain and traveling freely, is lucky to work there, especially since her parents were known Republicans who ended up murdered by the Franco regime. Ana lives in a poor village outside the city with older sister Julia and her husband, their baby, and her older brother Rafa. Everyone must work in order to save the money needed to move out one day, but their Republican roots threaten every step forward. Julia and Rafa have their own secrets, as do Rafa’s friend Fuga, who longs to become a famous bullfighter, and Puri, Ana’s cousin who works at the orphanage, which is a nexus of both state and Catholic Church power.
The relationship between Daniel and Ana is central to the story. Unbeknownst to his father, Dan is hoping to take photos in Madrid to use for a journalism school scholarship. Thanks to his fluent Spanish (Daniel’s mother is a native and he grew up bilingual), Daniel is able to communicate easily with locals, but he does not initially understand the danger he is in by taking certain photos. Daniel makes some important connections at the hotel, including to a newsman named Ben who will act as a mentor and to the Van Dorns, an American family linked to the US Embassy. The most important relationship though will be with Ana. She has been assigned to the Mathesons while they are at the hotel, and she and Daniel will develop a very close relationship, but one that could potentially endanger Ana and her family.
Sepetys brings together multiple storylines so masterfully in this novel. Her teen characters are real and relatable even if their problems are far different from anything we might have experienced. The reader feels the tension and fear that they feel as we wonder what truths will eventually be revealed. And those truths when they are revealed are shocking.
Sepetys was inspired to write this novel based on real events that actually occurred under the Franco regime and that were brought to light within the last decade or so. I find her understanding of Spanish history and culture to be most impressive, and I really liked that she used photos from the time as well as pertinent excerpts from diplomatic dispatches, news articles, and statesmen’s memoirs at the start of chapters. I was also impressed with the way she resolved her story lines in the second part of the novel. I honestly loved this book and would recommend it to anyone interested in learning some important history alongside a sweet love story.