Over the weekend, full of emotion, I finished Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. This book opened my eyes and taught me things about my heritage that I didn’t know, so I’m going to tell you about my experience reading this book.
Book Genre: YA Historical Fiction
Paperback: 368 Pages
Synopsis from Amazon:
A moving and haunting novel for readers of The Book Thief
Fifteen-year-old Lina is a Lithuanian girl living an ordinary life--until Soviet officers invade her home and tear her family apart. Separated from her father and forced onto a crowded train, Lina, her mother, and her young brother make their way to a Siberian work camp, where they are forced to fight for their lives. Lina finds solace in her art, documenting these events by drawing. Risking everything, she imbeds clues in her drawings of their location and secretly passes them along, hoping her drawings will make their way to her father's prison camp. But will strength, love, and hope be enough for Lina and her family to survive?
This powerful tale of heartbreak and hope is sure to haunt readers long after they finish the last page.
Why this Book?
I’ll start off by saying that I am a huge fan of The Book Thief and I couldn’t understand why it would be sold as a YA. The subject matter was deep and I felt a younger audience wouldn’t truly appreciate the beautiful writing. I felt the same about Between Shades of Gray, but then I realized that both of these books teach younger generations about history and compassion.
I bought this book because of the subject matter. I’m of Lithuanian and German descent and I find ancestry and history fascinating. Although the characters in this book are fictional, the events that took place are very real. Between Shades of Gray introduced me to the sadness and horror that Soviets inflicted on the Baltic states, something I wasn’t aware of until now. In the book, a gifted teenage girl, Lina, struggles to find her father, the boy she fell in love with, and tries to keep her family alive as they’re imprisoned in Siberia—working for the Soviets. The Soviet’s reason for the millions of captures—they were accessories. What occurred in the Baltic States was another genocide.
Ruta’s writing captured the essence of agony, horror and defiance with sentences like, “Death had begun to gather a crop.”, “Or a sadness so deep, like your very core has been hollowed out and fed back to you from a dirty bucket?”, and “I had no tears. The sensation of crying would fill me, but my eyes would only dry-heave and burn.”
Lina tried to get word to her father through her drawings—an exceptional artist ready to learn the craft of art in Vilnius before the Soviets captured her family. They rode in cattle cars, having to relieve themselves in front of others, and subjected to sickness from malnutrition and battling the elements. As Lina stated, “I was sure the insides of my bones were full of ice. They made a cracking, snapping sound when I stretched.” She fights to survive her 12-years of imprisonment.
While reading this book, it brought up some Lithuanian traditions that I remember from long ago, such as Kūčios. Kūčios is a Christmas Eve celebration of twelve courses symbolizing the twelve months of the year and the twelve apostles. Also on Christmas when we were growing up, we’d each have a wafer, plotkelė (depending on the region), and went around the table cracking a piece while exchanging well wishes. These were wonderful memories for me growing up, and I appreciated reading about them in this book.
Another wonderful thing Ruta did was refer to secondary characters using character traits. I found it fascinating that the descriptions and what the characters said were enough for the reader to get an idea about them. For instance, she refers to one character as ‘the man who wound his watch’, and another character as ‘the bald man’. Here’s a little flavor of the bald man (pg 257):
Janina tapped the bald man on the shoulder, “I heard you’re a Jew,” she said.
“That’s what you heard, eh?” said the bald man.
“Is it true?” asked Janina.
“Yes. I heard you’re a little brat, is that true?”
The ending left one thing unresolved, which normally would make me upset but it went well with this book. As Lina fought for survival, she carried hope and love with her, and that’s what the end is all about—hope and love.
When I was young, kids would ask me what nationality I was and I’d say Lithuanian. No one ever heard of it, and some kids even responded with, “But I thought you were Catholic.” It all makes sense now…except the Catholic part. During Hitler’s reign, Josef Stalin was doing his own destruction by taking over the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia and deporting the citizens. All of this started in 1939 with the first deportation in 1941. While they were imprisoned, the Soviets destroyed their countries. The Baltic states were in the middle of the Soviet and Nazi empires, forgotten by everyone, and eventually disappeared from maps. The ones that survived spent ten to fifteen years imprisoned in Siberia. Not many knew what had happened because the Baltic states were occupied by the Soviet Union up until 1991, when they finally became independent again. Under the Soviet Union, if a word was spoken about the genocide, they would be imprisoned.
While Hitler was murdering millions of Jews, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and Josef Stalin is estimated to have killed twenty million people during his reign. I thank Ruta Sepetys for bringing this to light and educating me along with many others about the horrible genocide that occurred in the Baltic states.
This is a 5-star book and I highly recommend it to everyone.
History and Storytelling,Bea