Between Shades of Gray tells a story of a portion of history about which I am largely ignorant. My history text books did not take the time to tell of Stalin's reign of terror during World War II and beyond, so occupied were they with what the rest of the world was doing. Stories like that of Lithuanian fifteen-year-old Lina were rarely told, and when they were, it was mostly as an afterthought. This is part of the reason Ruta Sepetys' new young adult novel is so valuable. It offers a testament to the horror of this time, and gives a voice to the millions of victims who have gone voiceless for so long.
Lina is a typical fifteen year old girl. She has her friends, her interests (painting and drawing, at which she excels) and her family. But all that was normal and safe in her life is shattered one night when the NKVD, Soviet police, come barging in her home to arrest the family. For what, Lina doesn't know. From this point on, Lina's tale becomes one of survival, first the over-crowded, filthy train car, then work camps in Siberia and the dreaded winters. All the while, Lina chronicles the horror around her in words and pictures that keep a spark of hope alive.
I don’t want to write too much about what Lina goes through, partly because much of it is too horrible to repeat and partly because it has to be lived, as the reader lives it, in order to maintain the full value and impact of the text. For impactful it is, hitting hard notes that certainly resonated with me. The book is not a long one; it can be completed in one marathon session if you can stand absorbing the entire trauma at once. But what it lacks in length, it more than makes up for in quality and texture.
Lina is a wonderful character, one with faults and quirks, but one who discovers an iron backbone through her ordeal. Sepetys’ secondary characters are just as wonderfully drawn, from Lina’s strong and nurturing mother, to Andrius, her complicated love interest, and even the bald-headed man who accompanies Lina and her family on their terrifying journey. Everyone is given their humanity, with all its bumps and bruises, and their struggle for survival becomes a beautiful thing to behold.
I said before that Between Shades of Gray is a valuable book, and I stand by that. Stories like these need to be told, and told often, and retold, until they permeate the general consciousness. I can imagine Sepetys’ text becoming a standard with which this period of history is taught (and it should be taught), much in the same way that Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars tells a story of the Holocaust for younger readers. It’s the perfect book for such an endeavor. It’s horrifying, for sure, but just like the cover image, with its shoot of green through the ice, it is infused with hope, and that is something we can never do without.
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
2011, Puffin Books