Tuesday, March 22, 2011

REVIEW: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

by Ruta Sepetys
Releases on 03.22.2011
352 pages
Philomel Books
Source: ARC won through LibraryThing

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 (from GoodReads).

"One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic."
-widely attributed to Joseph Stalin

Say what you want to about Stalin: evil, antichrist, dictator, etc.  You'd be right, but he also knew human nature in all its callousness.  He knew.  Here's the thing. . . even before reading this book, I knew that he was responsible for the murder of some twenty-million people.  20,000,000!  How does one even comprehend such a number?  I clearly remember thinking in high school, "How?  What deaths?  Does this have something to do with the Holocaust?"  Somehow, after the Victorian period and Russian Revolution, but before WWII, the USSR just appeared.  It just happened.  I can't make sense of how I did this (and I loved history class), but I think I somehow just attributed all those deaths to the Holocaust because they seemed to happen at the same time, but I couldn't figure out exactly where they fit in and why.

And, of course, there were no stories, no actual, personal memoirs to tell me differently.  No versions of Schindler's List or Elie Wiesel's Night existed about the plight of these European nations, ones which we in the United Stated don't know nearly as much about as we do France, Spain, Germany and Italy.  Twenty million was just a statistic to me - a wholly regrettable, but forgettable, number, because there was no narrative.  Until now.

Between Shades of Gray is beautiful book about human endurance and the will to survive.  Lina, her younger brother, Jonas, and her beautiful, courageous, hopeful, and selfless mother, Elena, are one of the most wonderful families that I've read about in so, so long, and it's due to this that they were able to cope as they did.  Lina's coming-of-age into young adulthood is wretchedly overshadowed by the need to survive.  Her thriving talent becomes her lifeline, her tool that keeps her going because people must know what happened.  The descriptions are well-detailed and harrowing.  Sepetys' writing is simple and lets the plain, but evil reality of Lina's situation shine through.  The documented difference between 'before' and 'after' are particularly well done.  It's woven throughout the story, and not only are we sadly treated to glimpses of Lina's life before she was taken, but the political climate is illustrated, as well.  The wonderful lyrical quality in the story's tone contrasts with the ugliness that surrounds Lina.  There is no need to embellish what happens in this book - the facts stand clear on their own.   It's amazing how simple prose can lovingly and horrifically convey both the desperate circumstances Lina faces and the character of the various and varied people in this book.   

Between Shades of Gray is a completely appropriate name for this book, as it not only names the color palette Lina has to work with, but also the spectrum of moral choices that everyone has to make in it.  It's a very excellent example of how different people will do different things given the same set of circumstances, about how you can't always assume there is a clear-cut 'right' choice.  Variables are important and can sway a person one way or another. . . I'd like to think of myself as a noble creature, one who would say, "Death, be damned," and who would do what is without reproach.  I'd like to think that, but most of us aren't heroes, and we make the choices we can lay our heads down on at night, and I'd likely be one of them.  The characters in this book are no exception.  However, acts of humanity sometimes do creep up when they are needed most.  There is community between these pages, and between the most unlikely of characters.

I have a lot of experience with Holocaust literature, and while Between Shades of Gray isn't a part of that specific group, it is a contemporary of it.  Many of the things that happen in this book are similar to things that have happened in pieces of Holocaust literature and will provoke similar reactions from you.  What makes this book special is that it is among the first, perhaps the first, to shed light on a very little known chapter in history.  You won't regret reading Lina's story, and by doing so, you will help give voice to those formerly silenced.  I highly recommend it. 

I highly suggest that you watch this beautifully made video that explains the history and background of Between Shades of Gray.  The research and heart that the author put into this story is evident.  While I did not cry while I read, I teared up quite a bit listening to Ruta speak of her passion for this subject.  Please watch - it will give you a far richer understanding of previously unheard voices in history. . .

Ruta Sepetys discusses her upcoming novel, Between Shades of Gray from Penguin Young Readers Group on Vimeo.

(please note that these quotes are from an ARC and may be changed in a final copy - page numbers are not provided for this reason)

"'Twenty minutes,' the officer barked.  He threw his burning cigarette onto our clean living room floor and ground it into the wood with his boot.

We were about to become cigarettes."

"I shut the bathroom door and caught sight of my face in the mirror.  I had no idea how quickly it was to change, to fade.  If I had, I would have stared at my reflection, memorizing it.  It was the last time I would look into a real mirror for more than a decade."

"My breathing slowed.  I shaded her thick chestnut hair resting in a smooth curve against her face, a large bruise blazing across her cheek.  I paused, looking over my shoulder to make certain I was alone.  I drew her eye makeup, smudged by tears.  In her watery eyes I drew the reflection of the commander, standing in front of her, his fist clenched.  I continued to sketch, exhaled, and shook out my hands."


  1. I really want to read this book. The synopsis sounds good and well it has caught my eye. Everyone I know says that its really good. Thanks for the review!

  2. This was such a beautiful review! And that video...truly heartbreaking to hear what these people had to go through. I most definitely will be picking up a finished copy.

  3. Great review! I loved this book, it's so powerful and I wish everyone would read it.

  4. For me, it is impossible to comprehend that number. I see it, but don't believe it.

    I don't have a lot of experience with Holocaust lit, but I think it is amazing to see other areas in history finally being given a voice. Thanks for the video and insightful review, Linds. I'm thinking I need to read this book like yesterday.

  5. Wow. Just wow Linds. Amazing, amazing review! This book sounds so complex and riveting, and I love what you said about the spectrum of moral choices - it's always fascinating to me to see what different people do when placed in the same dire situation. Definitely going to need to read this one!

  6. I have seen other reviews of this book and been left with the belief that this was a book on the Holocaust. They also never left me with a desire to read this book because I tend to stay away from things that sound depressing. But how could I not read this novel after your review and that video? So impressive. You're awesome.


  7. Fabulous review, Linds! I've had my eye on this book ever since I read a blurb about it. I love books that bring a less known fact to the surface. I don't remember much about Stalin's regime and the deaths that happened. I just knew it was a lot, but that's about it. I can't wait to read this book, but more importantly open my eyes to another part of history that's easily and unfairly overlooked.