I try to stay away from books that want to make me cry. We’ve talked about this before. I don’t like to cry when I’m reading, that’s not a fun part of the reading experience for me. Sometimes though…just sometimes…I hear such wonderful things about a book that crying or not I have to read it (no matter how much it intimidates me!). So, I read Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys.
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.
I really am speechless and have no idea what to say about this book that will do it justice. Between Shades of Gray is haunting. The story itself is incredibly intense and horrific.
Guys. This happened.
I had no idea that the Soviets went into the Baltic states and just took people from their homes and shipped them off to Siberia to die. I mean I knew a little, but the happenings of World War II often get eclipsed by the Jewish Holocaust, Hitler and the Nazis, so I had no idea to what extent Stalin’s damage had on the people of countries such as Lithuania. Interestingly enough, now that I’ve read this book, I’m remembering my mom telling me about one of the priests at the church I grew up in. Father Palis was born in Lithuania, was in seminary when the Soviet’s invaded and had to escape to Germany in secret. Personally knowing someone who went through parts of what Lina experienced makes the story in Between Shades of Gray that much more tangible.
Ruta Sepetys’ writing is beautiful. The horrors that Lina and her family witness and experience take on an almost lyrical quality, which made me continue turning the pages even though my heart hurt so much. You want to know what happens to this remarkable, vulnerable, bitter, kind and brave teenage girl. You want to know that she gets to go home and be a normal teenager who goes to school, flirts with boys and imagines her future as an artist. Sepetys’ writing just makes you get completely caught up in these characters.
It is interesting to see how the others in Lina’s group of deportees respond to the harsh circumstances. Some, like Lina’s mother, show amazing courage and kindness, while others are so broken that they become hard and bitter. Lina touches on these reactions throughout the story, and Lina herself struggles with alternating feelings of hatred and anger versus love and grace.
If you haven’t read Between Shades of Gray yet, you need to add it to your TBR list as soon as possible. It is so well done (and the audiobook narrator is fabulous). The story of what Lina and her people are forced to bear with will cause you to wonder why our history textbooks don’t teach us more about what happened in the Baltic states during Stalin’s rule. As an educator, I believe this book could be (and should be) taught as a supplement to any history or language arts curriculum at the middle school level and up (if it’s not already…but it probably is). Parents note that there are very disturbing scenes of death and violence and you should read it along with your middle schooler.
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Publisher: Philomel Books (March 22, 2011), Penguin Audio
Length: 7 hours and 47 mins
Narrator(s): Emily Klein
Buy the Book: Between Shades of Gray