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A Child and a Country at the End of History

by Lea Ypi

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  • Mel F. (Auburn, MA)
    Free-a memoir of growing up in Albania during a changing political landscape and impacts on ideological beliefs
    This is a compelling novel in which the author recounts her childhood and maturity in Albania in the late 1980s and extending into the late 1990s when there was an extreme change in Albania's political landscape. The regime changed from communism under the leadership of politician, Enver Hoxha (referred to as Uncle Enver), to a parliamentary republic. It was during this period that the author experienced an ideological maturity about the concept of freedom.

    Her story poignantly begins when she is a young girl clutching a decapitated statue of Stalin because she learned in school that he was the man who changed the world. She runs to this statue to seek refuge from protestors (her father called them hooligans) who are clamoring for freedom and democracy. That is what triggers her to question the concept of freedom. As the author states later in the novel: "That is the day that I lost my childhood innocence." Her family acts and describes their family history in terms of normalcy; however, she later learns they deceived her. The universities they attended were a ruse for prisons/deportation sites, curriculums were a variety of criminal offenses, and a degree of completion was the end of a prison sentence. The ultimate deception was that her family heritage included a Populist Part Prime Minister she detested.

    Her teenage years were also tumultuous because Albania's road to democracy required multiple transitions- political, economic, social, and European integration. The environment was chaotic with violent protests, political corruption, pyramid schemes and widespread bankruptcies which sparked the Albanian Civil War of 1997. This period also resulted in significant ideological shifts in her parents and other Albanians.

    This book is a beautifully written memoir reflecting not only the author's emotions but the formation of her strong political beliefs. It is well suited to someone knowledgeable in political science or who is interested in nonfiction with historical and philosophical depth. While I was unfamiliar with this topical area, it expanded my perspective on the impacts of changing political conditions on ideological beliefs. At the novel's conclusion, it caused me to contemplate - Is freedom a concept defined in the eye of the beholder?
  • Rosemary C. (Golden, CO)
    I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Ypi is a gifted writer who creates a vivid picture of her coming of age during the political and cultural changes in her home country of Albania. The stories she tells personalize the effects of these dramatic changes on her family and others in her community. She is at times humorous and witty, always passionate and seeking the truth.
    I think this would be an excellent choice for a book group, allowing discussions about how the adults in her life protected her by not telling her the truths about the system under which they lived, but also exploring the ways in which political philosophies are distorted by those who claim to be creating a society based on them.
  • Patricia W. (Desoto, TX)
    I found Lea Ypi's personal story of growing up in Albania during socialism and then as the country transitioned from socialism to political pluralism engrossing to read. It was enlightening to learn what she was taught in school, including how to think about her country. One of the most interesting aspects of the book was reading about the different perspectives of three generations: parents, grandmother, and daughter/granddaughter. Unlike Lea, her parents and grandmother had experienced life before socialism. I didn't realize how difficult the transition to democracy is for countries and for individuals. This book reminded me to think about what it means to be free and what freedom is. I will recommend it to my friends.
  • Patricia L. (Seward, AK)
    Search for Utopia
    Some time ago, during an extended stay on a remote beach, a few friends and I tried to imagine the perfect society. We were different ages, and came from opposite ends of the earth. After a few drinks and multiple attempts at creating this ideal nation, ultimately someone would say: "But for that to work some people would have to die!" Then with a resigned sigh of agreement we would go back to the drawing board.
    In Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History, the author Lea Ypi recounts her experience as a young child in Marxist-Leninist Albania, and as a teen during the messy transition to a Socialist democracy just as the Soviet Union began to collapse. She pointedly recalls advocates of both systems regaling how free she and her friends and family would be once their goals were reached. Yet, as my friends surmised and Ypi remembers, freedom can have many interpretations, limits and degrees.
    Born into a family with a "biography" of "liberals and liberalism" Ypi continually wondered why her parents didn't have pictures of the Party leaders prominently displayed in their home. The author's early teacher was Nora, a strict Party representative, who succinctly answered questions with sanctioned responses assuring the receptive students of the freedom that the Party promised. While her family didn't directly dispute Nora they did not readily agree. During her early teens she experienced the nuances of her family "biography" as she navigated high school and social activities. Only later upon reflection did she realize that the family had communicated with a kind of code to describe their history and that much of what she thought she knew was actually quite the opposite.
    Free is readable and refreshing while providing an in-depth understanding of "foreign" culture and governments as experienced by those being governed. Ypi would have been welcomed as a seasoned voice in those long ago campfire summits. Highly recommended.
  • Sylvia F. (Lincoln, CA)
    FREE by Lea Ypi
    I found this book very informative about Albania, a country the world does not know. The author's description of her childhood in the 1980's had both humor and information of how a child could be happy living in a strict socialism society. It was interesting to learn how the adults had to speak in code around a child who loved Stalin and Uncle Enver. I felt her confusion and frustration when her country changed to a free society that eventually led to a civil war. This book led me to search on the internet for the history of Albania.
    This well written memoir was hard to put down and left the reader thinking democracy is not for everyone.
  • Lucy S. (Ann Arbor, MI)
    A Moving Personal History
    I highly recommend this book. Lee Ypi's personal story of coming-of-age in Albanian illuminated the history, politics, and culture of a part of a country that kept to itself. I learned something on every page. As told from Ypi's perspective, the information is provided to us in much the way she received it. She tells the first part of this story, when Albania was still closed off from the world, seemingly without hindsight so that when her world dramatically shifts, the reader feels as surprised as she does.

    Ypi is an excellent writer. Masterfully adding humor to her sharp observations, all the while revealing how serious her world was.
  • Bonne O. (Hartwell, GA)
    Is freedom really free?
    What I loved about this book was the way such a significant historical event as the collapse of the Soviet Union was presented. Lea Ypi's memoir of living through Albania's abrupt transition of socialism to the formerly maligned capitalism provides a realism that could never be duplicated in a history book. Belief systems for millions of people are uprooted. The author sites numerous examples, some humorous, some tragic, of her family and others suddenly experiencing free speech, free elections, free markets, and open borders. Free also gives the reader a rare glimpse of daily life in a socialist society where the collective is paramount, religion is nonexistent, propaganda is preached in the schools, goods are limited or scarce, and praise for the leader is embedded in all aspects of life. Despite a universal desire for democracy and freedom, the author causes the reader to reflect on the price that one actually pays for freedom.
    "Free" should be required reading in all high school and college world history classes.
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