Releases on 03.22.2011
Source: ARC won through LibraryThing
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.
Ruta Sepetys discusses her upcoming novel, Between Shades of Gray from Penguin Young Readers Group on Vimeo.