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The Fountains of Silence

Book review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
The Fountains of Silence Book Poster Image
Poignant, powerful drama set in 1957 fascist Spain.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

The Fountains of Silence has a lot to teach readers about life in Spain under the three-decade rule of General Francisco Franco from 1939 to 1975. Thoroughly researched, the story delves into the various ways the Franco regime suppressed the press, any opposition, and any religion not Catholic. The book reveals how much fear people lived in and how much control the church and the Civil Guard held over people (who would denounce each other). There's also a denunciation of the way rich American moguls and celebrities visited and invested in a totalitarian regime. The book discusses the work of prominent artists and authors and photographers.

Positive Messages

The Fountains of Silence encourages readers to think about the ways they are privileged and free compared to those living under authoritarian regimes. The symbolism and themes push readers to think about the cost of freedom, the pain of oppression, and the ways that history is written by the winners. The novel will help readers empathize and acknowledge human rights violations and question why governments who commit them gain support and credibility when democracies acknowledge and invest in them.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The young main characters are all courageous and compassionate. The Spaniards are subversive in the ways they can be, while also being cautious not to get into trouble or cause trouble for anyone else. The Americans can be clueless but eventually do their best to help their Spanish friends.

Violence

The Guardia Civil intimidates Daniel, roughs him, beats up people, arrests them, and in one case, shoots people. People live in fear of the Guardia Civil, nuns, priests, and anyone who represents the Franco regime. A character is killed, another is arrested, tortured, and nearly killed. Descriptions of various "Reds" and "Republicans" who were killed without even being arrested or accused of anything. Upsetting descriptions of dead and stolen babies, as well as a character's past abuse.

Sex

Mostly loaded, lingering looks, flirting, and obvious attraction. A few make-out sessions between older teens and passionate kissing and a presumed night together between adults. Mentions of mild flirting and rumor resulting in a prostitution claim against young women in Franco's Spain. A married couple embraces.

Language

No profanity in English beyond "Oh my God!" Insult in Spanish: "Nenaza," meaning "sissy." 

Consumerism

The historically real Castellana Hilton Hotel in Madrid is prominently featured in the story. It's later an InterContinental. Daniel owns a professional grade Nikon camera that's mentioned several times.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Several adult and a few college and boarding-school characters drink (but in Europe the older teens are of drinking age), some to excess. Specific drinks are mentioned, like wine, champagne, Scotch, whiskey, and the cocktail Tom Collins. Characters also smoke cigars or cigarettes.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Fountains of Silence is the fourth historical fiction novel from award-winning author Ruta Sepetys. It chronicles life in 1957 Spain under fascist dictator Francisco Franco from the perspective of a young American photographer and the beautiful and mysterious Spanish maid assigned to his family at a luxury hotel in Madrid. The story delves into the many ways that people suffered under the dictatorship and how American and foreign tourists were blinded to the reality of the human rights violations for the sake of their comfort and luxury. The book doesn't shy away from describing violence, from arrests, torture, and killings to stolen children. Only strong language is "Oh my God!" But the themes and atrocities described make it best for older middle schoolers, high schoolers, and adults.

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What's the story?

Ruta Sepetys' fourth historical novel THE FOUNTAINS OF SILENCE centers on Spain during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. After two decades of isolation from most of the world, Spain has opened its doors to tourists and foreign investors. In Madrid, 1957, 18-year-old Daniel Matheson and his parents, a Texas oil tycoon and a Spanish-born mother-turned-Dallas socialite, arrive at the posh Hilton hotel that caters to rich Americans. With his professional-grade camera in hand, Daniel, who's bilingual, hopes to reconnect with his mother's country (and build up his photography portfolio for a prestigious photography competition), while his father works on a lucrative oil deal with the fascist government. Daniel meets his family's dedicated hotel maid, Anna, who's gorgeous and secretive, and clearly hiding a lot about life outside the elite bubble of the hotel. Anna, it turns out, is the orphaned daughter of Republicans killed during the Civil War. A third plot line focuses on Anna's devout cousin Puri, who works at a Catholic orphanage and begins to question whether the orphans really do have dead parents or if the Church and State are up to something more sinister.

Is it any good?

Thoroughly researched and beautifully written, Sepetys has created yet another masterpiece that crosses over form young adult to general historical fiction. Like her other novels, this one is full of intricate historical details, a swoon-worthy, slow-burning romance, and a fully fleshed setting that will make readers believe they've actually visited Madrid and Vallejas or witnessed an amateur torero exhibition. While the main characters are Daniel and Anna, Sepetys weaves in the perspectives of the devout Puri and Anna's older siblings in an organic way. Everyone's individual story is part of the heartbreaking whole, with Daniel acting as readers' clueless but well-intentioned guide into the deafening silence of life under Franco.

With this fourth book, Sepetys further solidifies her place at the top of YA fiction's master writers, and the preeminent historical writer for young adults. While the steamy fantasies and edgy contemporaries have their place in the space, teens, parents, and teachers should consider Sepetys' titles an automatic buy or borrow. She somehow manages to make 500+ pages fly by with a riveting story simultaneously filled with suspenseful dread and hopeful anticipation. As the pages turn, readers will fall as much for the charming and clever Spanish girl and the courageous and talented Texan boy as they do for each other. But calling the book a romance is to do it a disservice. It's a satisfying epic about so many kinds of love, from romantic to familiar, and an exploration of the important difference between patriotism and nationalism.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about life under a dictatorial regime as depicted in The Fountains of Silence. Is the violence necessary to Sepetys' story? If so, why? Is historically accurate violence different from completely fictional violence?

  • Discuss the various ways "silence" plays a part in the story. How did keeping silent work for the different characters? How is speaking out and having a voice a form of freedom?

  • What did you learn about the history of Francoist Spain? Does the book make you interested in learning more about the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath? What do you think of American involvement during the Franco regime?

  • Who do you consider a role model? How did they exhibit perseverance, compassion, and empathy? Why are those important character strengths?

  • The author's novels are considered "crossover titles," which appeal equally to adults and teens. What do you think of that designation? What are some other "crossover" books you enjoy?

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