January 30, 2014
Between Shades of Gray
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
2011 Philomel Books (a division of Penguin Young Readers Group)
Finished on 10/18/13
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.
In 1941, fifteen-year-old Lina is preparing for art school, first dates, and all that summer has to offer. But one night, the Soviet secret police barge violently into her home, deporting her along with her mother and younger brother. They are being sent to Siberia. Lina’s father has been separated from the family and sentenced to death in a prison camp. All is lost.
Lina fights for her life, fearless, vowing that if she survives she will honor her family, and the thousands like hers, by documenting their experience in her art and writing. She risks everything to use her art as messages, hoping they will make their way to her father’s prison camp to let him know they are still alive.
It is a long and harrowing journey, and it is only their incredible strength, love, and hope that pull Lina and her family through each day. But will love be enough to keep them alive?
Between Shades of Gray is a riveting novel that steals your breath, captures your heart, and reveals the miraculous nature of the human spirit.
Born and raised in Michigan, Ruta Sepetys is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee. The nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia disappeared from maps in 1941 and did not reappear until 1990. As this is a story seldom told, Ruta wanted to give a voice to the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives during Stalin’s cleansing of the Baltic region. Ruta lives with her family in Tennessee. Between Shades of Gray is her first novel.
I never cared much for history when I was in high school, but sometime around my early 30s, I became very interested in learning about World War II and the Holocaust. I’ve watched Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, The Pianist, Defiance, Judgment at Nuremberg and The Reader. I’ve also read books such as Hitler and the Final Solution, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Book Thief, The Hiding Place, Night, Sarah’s Key, Maus, A Thread of Grace, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. And, several years ago, I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. The racial cleansing of the Jews and Poles, as well as the mass murders of gypsies and homosexuals under Hitler’s Nazi party is well-documented; the movies are gut-wrenching to watch and the books are simply heartbreaking. Josef Stalin’s genocide against those he considered anti-Soviet is just as appalling and yet I know virtually nothing about that horrific period of time. Ruta Sepetys’ debut novel, Between Shades of Gray, is a good introduction to this period in history, and yet with this particular category of historical fiction, I found it difficult to read some of the horrific details. I think, perhaps, I’ve had my fill of this genre. One can only absorb so much evil and so much horror.
In 1939, the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Shortly thereafter, the Kremlin drafted lists of people considered anti-Soviet who would be murdered, sent to prison, or deported into slavery in Siberia. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, military servicemen, writers, business owners, musicians, artists, and even librarians were all considered anti-Soviet and were added to the growing list slated for wholesale genocide. The first deportations took place on June 14, 1941.
Those who survived spent ten to fifteen years in Siberia. Upon returning in the mid-1950s, the Lithuanians found that the Soviets had occupied their homes, were enjoying all of their belongings, and had even assumed their names. Everything was lost. The returning deportees were treated as criminals. They were forced to live in restricted areas, and were under constant surveillance by the KGB, formerly the NKVD. Speaking about their experience meant immediate imprisonment or deportation back to Siberia. As a result, the horrors they endured went dormant, a hideous secret shared by millions of people.
It is estimated that Josef Stalin killed more than twenty million people during his reign of terror. The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia lost more than a third of their population during the Soviet genocide. The deportations reached as far as Finland. To this day, many Russians deny they ever deported a single person.
It took me a little while to get interested in the narrative, but after about 50 pages I was hooked and eager to get back to this book, finishing in just a few days. I wanted to love this novel and while I think it’s quite good (and informative), I don’t think it’s nearly as good as The Book Thief. Once again, I have yet to find anything as good as that book!
Golden Kite Award for Fiction
Cybils Award Nominee for Young Adult Fiction (2011)
William C. Morris YA Debut Award Nominee (2012)
ALA Teens’ Top Ten Nominee (2012)
Indies Choice Book Award for Young Adult (2012)
Carnegie Medal in Literature Nominee
Kirkus Reviews Best Teen Books of the Year (2011)
YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults (Top Ten) (2012)