Published by Philomel Books on March 22nd 2011
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult
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Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they've known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin's orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions.
Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously--and at great risk--documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages 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, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives. Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.
This is one of those books that will change your perspective on the world. It is one of those reads that you finish and wonder why more people haven’t read it.
That is exactly how I reacted upon finishing this novel. I was laying in bed, barely able to touch my coffee, experiencing a heart break of epic proportions — and I felt like nobody understood what I had just gone through. How do you articulate something like that? It’s an experience unlike any other, and it’s the most beautiful thing about reading.
After what I went through, though, I want more people to read this novel. I think it’s an important story to be told and even more important to be read. In fact, I’m recommending not just Between Shades of Gray, but I also believe that once done with this book you must pick up Salt to the Sea.
So, why is this book so good? For many reasons. The first reason is that this author is amazing. Ruta Sepetys is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, and she has found a story to bring a voice to those who lost their lives during Stalin’s rein as he “cleansed” the nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. While she was born and raised in the United States, she now travels overseas to interview and research this terrible time in history. She comes face to face with this horrible history and transforms it into something that will enchant and provoke thought.
The other reason that this book is incredible is entirely to do with the characters.
We follow Lina and her family as they are taken from their home because they are considered intellectuals and, therefore, a threat. Lina, as well as a number of other Lithuanians, are all thrown into the back of a truck and driven to a train. The train then takes them deep into Siberia where they are forced into manual labor. However, there is beauty in the community that these refugees create with one another. They find peace and solice amongst one another and protect each other, even if it’s not a pleasant experience.
While this is a story about the most depraved of humanity and how they justify mal-nourishment and mistreating another person. It is also a story about growing up and how we, as humans, keep ourselves motivated to survive. It’s about the love of family and the sacrifices that can be made to protect the ones we hold most dear. It is also, as I said before, about community. I think that’s why I found this story so uplifting. The reality is so desolate, and yet here is a group of people coming together to protect and love one another despite all of the odds.
There are two incredibly interesting elements to this story that, in my opinion, set this book apart.
The first element is Lina’s artistry. I think that Sepetys added such a lovely element to this story by having Lina be an artist. There is something very romantic, and inspiring, about a girl who utilizes her talents for artistry as documentation. I think that is why I felt drawn to re-read A Diary of a Young Girl after this book. Having someone willing to risk everything to document such important moments in history, whether said someone is fictional or not, is wildly moving. It makes me wonder why I don’t put more importance on my own journaling or documentation.
The second element is a somewhat subtle subplot around Lina’s cousin, Joana. I think that this is incredibly important to note because it leads us into Sepetys’ next book Salt to the Sea. Lina has many moments of reflection on her cousin and their lives together up to this point. Joana’s family was able to leave the country, and there are a few pieces to this part of the story that I am going to deliberately leave out so I don’t spoil anything. However, this allows for Lina’s character to think about her cousin and dream that she is safe and warm and happy. It’s almost like a wish for her cousin as Lina struggles to maintain hope for herself. Ultimately, the mentioning of Joana through out the book seems somewhat random. It feels mostly like a string tied to Lina’s previous life that keeps her afloat… until I started reading Salt to the Sea afterwards and found that Sepetys decided to write both girls’ stories.
I have said it before, and I will say it again… This book begs to be read. It is a reminder of how desperate and horrible the world can be. It is also a story that I had never heard before. I have no idea why I was unaware of the Lithuanian refugees because I have read so much around this time period. Yet, in almost every interview I have read or heard about with Ruta Sepetys, someone says the same thing and her response is brilliant — she essentially says, don’t feel bad. I have heard her tell people that this is a story very similar to her own family’s and she didn’t even really know about it. The point is that you are now aware because you read this book.
Her next book Salt to the Sea is a must read after Between Shades of Gray. As I noted before, this book is an excellent sequel – without technically being a sequel. If you read it in reverse, I don’t really think it matters either. As long as you have read both stories!
🗯 “November 20. Andrius’s birthday. I had counted the days carefully. I wished him a happy birthday when I woke and thought about him while hauling logs during the day. At night, I sat by the light of the stove, reading Dombey and Son. Krasivaya. I still hadn’t found the word. Maybe I’d find it if I jumped ahead. I flipped through some of the pages. A marking caught my eye. I leafed backward. Something was written in pencil in the margin of 278.
Hello, Lina. You’ve gotten to page 278. That’s pretty good!
I gasped, then pretended I was engrossed in the book. I looked at Andrius’s handwritting. I ran my finger over this elongated letters in my name. Were there more? I knew I should read onward. I couldn’t wait. I turned though the pages carefully, scanning the margins.
Are you really on page 300 or are you skipping ahead now?
I had to stifle my laughter.
Dombey and Son is boring. Admit it.
I’m thinking of you.
Are you maybe thinking of me?
I closed my eyes.
Yes, I’m thinking of you. Happy birthday, Andrius.”
🗯 “Sometimes there is such beauty in awkwardness. There’s love and emotion trying to express itself, but at the time, it just ends up being awkward.”
🗯 “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.”