Between Shades of Gray
by Ruta Sepetys
Sepetys, Ruta. Between Shades of Gray. New York: Penguin Young Readers Group, 2012. ISBN 9780399254123
It is Lithuania in 1941, and Lina and her family are trying to live a normal life. Lina has been accepted into a wonderful art program for the following year, and is looking forward to summer, but everything changes drastically for her family within a short amount of time. The Soviets come into the country looking for those who have "broken the law," and Lina's father seems to be taken. That evening, the Soviets come to their house and Lina, her mother, and her younger brother, Jonas, have twenty minutes to get their things together. They encounter horrible conditions and treatment at the hands of the Soviets as they are transported to Siberia to work in camps. They must find a way to stick together and survive when everything seems to be falling apart around them.
"Whether love of friend, love of country, love of God, or even love of enemy--love reveals to us the truly miraculous nature of the human spirit."
-Ruta E. Sepetys
This book offered so many wonderful qualities for those looking for a raw and beautiful historical read about a history that is often hidden and overlooked. Our fifteen-year-old protagonist Lina is so easy to relate to, even as she struggles through conditions that a lot of us could not fathom. She cares deeply about her family and their safety, and is a wonderful artist. And she is flawed, which is one of her best qualities. Despite the hardships, Sepetys wrote of Lina in a way that shows she is still a teenage girl trying to understand certain aspects of life while dealing with a horribly reality. The plot is so provoking and shocking, that the book is impossible to put down. There is no way to know what will happen to our characters next, as the events are ever changing and always shocking. Nothing is sugar-coated, and while some parts were difficult to read, I do believe they were essential in order for readers to truly understand the distress these individuals went through at the time.
The setting of this book was easy to follow, though it did change many times. Lithuania is not a country that most people are familiar with, and so Sepetys did a wonderful job of giving enough background knowledge without overwhelming readers with details. Every time the setting changed, they were described beautiful and could be pictured easily in the reader's mind. As for theme, the quote shared above says it all. While the characters struggled with loss, fear, and grief, they also had an abundance of love between one another, and a desire to help keep one another alive despite starting as strangers. This shares the universal theme that love can conquer even the most difficult of times.
As far as authenticity goes, this book passes with flying colors. The details and descriptions were always so clear that it was obvious that Sepetys had done her research, and the accounts seemed too realistic, despite being fictional characters, to be made up without any historical support. Sepetys went on to explain in an author's note that she traveled to Lithuania twice during the writing of the novel, and discussed the history with several people who were involved as well as historians. It is clear that she put a lot of time and energy into making sure the book was as authentic as possible.
From Publisher's Weekly: "The narrative skillfully conveys the deprivation and brutality of conditions, especially the cramped train ride, unrelenting hunger, fears about family members' safety, impossible choices, punishing weather, and constant threats facing Lina, her mother, and her younger brother."
From School Library Journal: "I did not know the details; and that is what Between Shades of Gray provides, the details of living, of dying, of survival. Of finding love and beauty and hope in bleakness."
This book, or at least excerpts from it, would be a wonderful addition to any World War II lesson or discussion. In fact, after reading it, I believe it is a necessity. There is always so much talk and study of Hitler's reign of terror, that it is often pushed aside just how deadly Stalin was as well. This book brings light to that.