Between Shades of Gray
by Ruta Sepetys
Genre: Young Adult
Published: 4/3/12 by Penguin Young Readers Group
5 out of 5 stars
History has never been my favorite subject, and I am admittedly ignorant on many historical subjects. However, I do enjoy learning about history through fiction. It's amazing how fiction has the power to open my eyes to reality. This book is fiction, but it is based on extensive research and based on interviews with survivors. If I could describe Between Shades of Gray in one word, it would be: eye-opening.
After reading this book, I'm a little embarrassed to admit my ignorance on this subject. I'm not sure if it was due to me not paying attention in history class or me never being taught about it. Obviously, I knew about Stalin and knew that bad things happened during his regime. But I knew nothing about people from Lithuania, Finland, Latvia and other places being deported and sent to camps in Siberia on his command. I had no idea that those people were enslaved in labor camps for as long as fifteen years. I had no idea that those countries lost nearly one third of their population during this genocide. I had no idea that Stalin is believed to be responsible for the deaths of more than twenty MILLION people! How can these things be kept secret? How can I be so ignorant?
Between Shades of Gray tells the fictional story of Lina, a fifteen year old Lithuanian girl. One night, the Soviets invade her home and throw her family into a crowded train car. After a long journey, they are forced into slave labor at camps throughout Siberia. For twelve years, Lina remains a slave in the hands of the Soviets, living in miserable, horrific conditions and suffering innumerable hardships. Despite the darkness and death all around her, Lina finds a way to survive through her writings and drawings, which give her hope and a reason to continue living.
One of the big reasons that I enjoyed this novel was the way that it opened my eyes to a part of history that I did not know. It was also well written with characters that I cared about. The writing is not fancy and fairly straightforward, and it seems appropriate for its young adult audience. I really enjoyed getting to know Lina, as well as her mother, brother, friend Andrius and others in her camp. I even came to care for the grumpy bald man who was obnoxiously causing trouble through most of the book.
The ending was abrupt, which frustrated me at first. I wanted to know exactly what happened to everyone, and not all of those details were provided. However, after more thinking, I decided that this is not the type of book where every loose end needs to be tied. I think a fairy tale type ending like that would distract from the point of the book, which is to bring light to a horrible, horrible, horrible genocide that happened to millions of real people. And the truth is that it didn't end well for most of those people.
This book made me feel sad. It made me feel guilty and angry. But it also made me feel hopeful. There is something inspiring about these people who had the will to live and survive even in the worst possible conditions. I'm not sure that I would be able to do the same. I especially admired Lina's mother for her determination to make the best of everything for her children's sake. As a parent, I couldn't help but imagine what I would do in the same circumstances. It was terrifying for me to read this book under that lens!!
To summarize this long review, I would say: Read this book. It's important and worth your time.