Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray
by Ruta Sepetys

Paperback, 384 pages
Published April 3, 2012 by Speak (First edition published in 2011)
Genre: Historical fiction, Realistic Fiction
Awards: Golden Kite Award in Fiction, 2012
               YALSA William C. Morris YA Debut Award 
               Finalist, 2012
               Carnegie Medal Nominee, 2012

MLA: Sepetys, Ruta. Between Shades of Gray. New York: Speak, 2012. Print. ISBN-13: 978-0142420591. Paperback, $8.99.

Find it in your local library!

Lina, along with her mother and younger brother, are cruelly wrenched from their Lithuanian home in the night by Soviet secret police during the June deportation in 1941 and taken on a long and arduous journey to a work camp in Siberia. Lina and her family fight for their lives, clinging to their traditions, creativity, and love for each other to survive in this gripping tale based on the true experiences of Lithuanians who suffered and died during the Soviet deportations of World War II.

“They took me in my nightgown.” 

Lina Vilkas, a talented fifteen-year-old on the brink of attending a prestigious art school, lived a comfortable middle-class life with her professor father, doting mother, and sweet, impish younger brother in Lithuania. The normalcy of her daily life made it easy to ignore the signs – the hushed conversations between her father and his friends that ended abruptly when she walked in the room, the family photos burned in the fireplace, her mother lining the inside of her coat with valuables.

Lina could ignore these omens because she was happy. She felt safe with her parents, emboldened by her art, loved by her cousin and best friend Joana. Lina had art school and all the promise of a fulfilling life ahead of her.

But on the night of June 14, 1941, a thunderous pounding on the front door changed everything.

The NKVD, the Soviet secret police responsible for cracking down on Stalin’s political enemies, force Lina, her mother, and little brother Jonas onto a filthy, crowded cattle car with the few belongings they managed to carry to begin their 6,500 mile journey to the work camps of frigid Siberia. Owing to uncomfortably close quarters, the family learns more about their fellow captives, including a handsome, headstrong seventeen-year-old named Andrius, with whom Lina finds an unexpected relationship blooming. Though their daily lives in Lithuania shared little in common, the motley group forges close bonds in the fire of their bleak circumstances, clinging to each other to remember the lives they left behind.

Lina comes to discover that they have been charged as criminals; her father was also arrested, and Lina is determined to find him. Despite the colossal risks to her family, she painstakingly documents their lives in the camp through her drawings with the hope that her father might receive them and know they survived. As their situation worsens, Lina summons the courage to fight for the lives of those she loves, to maintain the tiniest spark of hope that someday they will escape from the cold darkness of captivity and return to light of the lives they once knew.


I made the mistake of bringing this book with me on vacation to read on the beach. NOT a good call. Don’t get me wrong: this book is achingly beautiful and expertly achieved, and the history of the Lithuanian people (who lived under Soviet rule until 1990), which is underrepresented in history lessons and in literature, deserves to be told. But OH MAN, this is not a beach read.

Between Shades of Gray is an inspiring story about the strength of the human spirit to endure despite the worst atrocities. The power of love, family, and tradition to inspire hope in those with no reason left to believe in their dreams is profoundly illustrated through Lina and her fellow Lithuanians.

Through Lina’s journey, we meet the injured and obnoxious “bald man” Mr. Stalas; wide-eyed little girl Janina; new mother Ona who gave birth just moments before she and her newborn are ripped from the hospital by the NKVD; nurturing librarian Mrs. Rimas; and wife of a Lithuanian army officer Mrs. Arvydas and her son Andrius, among others. These characters are complicated and lovingly rendered as Sepetys attempts to construct the experiences of real Lithuanians who lived to tell the story of their horrifying experiences. Each in their own way, the secondary characters add depth to Lina’s story and help us understand the senselessness of their tragedies. Their small acts of bravery and kindness could cost them their lives, and yet they allow love and decency to prevail over the baser instinct of survival.

So what I’m trying to say is, don’t take this book to the beach unless you want to embarrassingly ugly-cry all the sunscreen off your face. Which is totally what happened to me.

Recommended for teens 13 and up, particularly those interested in history and/or fans of historical or realistic fiction.

Ruta Sepetys was inspired to write Between Shades of Gray by her father's escape from Lithuania as a young boy. Below is a video in which she discusses the novel.

You can also find a full discussion guide here.

The author also included a timeline map in the first pages of the book (scan credit here) that will give you some context before you read about the incredible amount of time and distance Lina and her family endured to get to their final destination in Siberia.

BBC News created a timeline of key events in Lithuania from 1915 to present if you are interested in a brief rundown of the country's history and where they're at today, and you'll find a more thorough history with pictures here.

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