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