Thursday, May 19, 2011

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
March 22, 2011; Philomel Books


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. (courtesy of Goodreads)


The idea of getting shipped off to Siberia is something I'd heard about most of my life. It's almost a cliche, a joke. In Between Shades of Gray, we are reminded that the horrors of the Stalin regime were no joke. They were raw, senseless, and beyond cruel.

Lina is a teenaged girl in Lithuania in 1940. She has a happy life. She's a talented artist and is close with her parents and little brother. This changes instantly when Soviets show up at their door at night and take the family away. Lina's father is taken to a prison camp and Lina, her mother, and little brother make the arduous journey from Lithuania to Siberia. Life becomes an endless struggle that seems to just get worse.

Between Shades of Gray is an exceptionally dark book. The author does not attempt to tamper the violence. Characters you grow to love become desperately ill. Some self-destruct. Some die. No one is spared. Despite the serious nature, I could not put this book down. It was extremely readable. The prose was fast and smooth. The outside world disappeared once you opened up the book. Lina's life in captivity was broken up by memories of happier times with family and friends. The flashbacks were the only thing I had an issue with. I loved how they made the book easier to take, but they also came so quickly and were not always connected to the present time. It was a bit confusing. Otherwise, the writing was close to perfect.

I loved Lina. She was strong and brave. She loved her family - she would do anything to help her mother and brother and to make sure that her father knew she was there. She is a gifted artist who sees life differently than most. She has great admiration for Edvard Munch (painter of The Scream). She loved his ability to portray raw terror with a paintbrush. Her art and view on life also shows things as they are - no sugar-coating. She has a tendency to jump to rash conclusions which sometimes has poor consequences, but she is capable of change and acceptance.

The secondary characters were all wonderful, even if some of them were awful. Lina's mother is a paragon of strength and forgiveness. She makes the best of their situation and retains her humanity and kindness towards everyone. By her example, her children and campmates try to do the same. Andrius, the young man in the camp, is a match for Lina in many ways. He is brave, devoted, and sometimes reckless. There are hints of romance, but this is definitely not that kind of book. It's more of a connection than a romance. The Bald Man was the other camper I found most intriguing. Invariably grumpy and pessimistic, he made others' lives miserable. It was fascinating to watch bits and pieces of his character fall in place as the story proceeded to understand his attitude. Even the Soviet guards were well-described. They were monsters; cruelty was a hobby. However, even they had individual personalities. I like that the author chose to humanize one guard, but also didn't make him an angel.

I hope Between Shades of Gray brings to light this horrible but forgotten time in history. This is a great book for teaching. Not only is it educational, but it is a fast, engrossing read that brings the Siberian workcamps to life.

Rating: 5 / 5


  1. I know that historical fiction isn't what is popular in YA right now but I hope more teens will pick this one up. It is a powerful story and the kind that stays with you. Fantastic review!

  2. What a phenomenal review! This book sounds like an intense read but also a necessary one. I have had it downloaded on my Kobo for a few weeks but haven't had a chance to start it yet.

  3. Wow, great review! I really want to read this one now. I'd seen it around, but didn't even know it was historical fiction. :)

  4. Great review! I agree, these kinds of books are important to make us remember the history. I'll try to check it out.

  5. My goodness, I so have to read this book. There are so many good reviews about it. Thanks for the review!

  6. This is a beautiful review Alison, you do such a great job of explaining your reaction without giving away too much of the book and I get such a good feel of whether or not a book is for me. This one sounds so dark and compelling, I need to read it for sure!

  7. Given the severity and how many people died in the Stalin regime, I'm really surprised that we don't hear much or any at all about what happened. I recently had a teen talk to me about this book. She echoed a lot of what you loved the book too. It's definitely in my pile of books to read. Did you need something "light" to read after you finished the book?

  8. I'm almost in tears just by reading your review. I haven't read the book yet, but I wonder if it was intentional on the author's part to make them confusing since Lina is in so out of place in that camp?

    I remember early review for this one really had me wanting to read it, but then I kind of forgot about it. Glad to have your review as a reminder.

  9. Oh wow!
    This review has made me really want to read this, when l seen it was set back in time l wasn't sure but not l definitely want too read it =)

  10. I'm reading this now, but I'm not far through it; too many books, too little time. But I know what you mean about the writing. I can't wait to finish it, to see how it ends!
    Incredible review; if I wasn't already reading/owning it, I'd run to my nearest bookshop to buy it! :)


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