Author: Ruta Septys
Published: March 22, 2011
Publisher: Philomel Books
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5 stars
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“Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother's was worth a pocket watch.”My Thoughts
― Ruta Sepetys, Between Shades of Gray
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. (Goodreads)
First, let me preface this book review by clearing up any confusion with this book and the Fifty Shades series. Between Shades of Gray has nothing to do with Christian Grey and eroticism, but every time I mentioned what I was reading to someone, they immediately assumed it was part of that series. Completely different book. Completely different spelling of "gray." Thank goodness.
I knew Between Shades of Gray would be an emotional read given the topic. There were many points during the book that I had to fight back a torrent of tears. While it was often upsetting, it was still beautifully written, making it a pleasure to read even if the events written about were far from pleasant. I would never want to be in Lina's place, but the author, against my wishes, brought Lithuania and the work camp in Siberia to life with her words. I really connected with the deported Lithuanians. I felt their despair and homesickness as they longed for Lithuania's faraway comforts. I was completely ignorant of the ongoing events in Lithuania during WWII because they had been forgotten amongst other horrors. I experienced a brutal awakening when I realized what Lithuania, and the other Baltic states, had suffered through.
I loved reading from Lina's POV because she never gave up hope. She may have been whiny, judgmental, and a bit annoying, but she was still a teenager, no matter what she endured, and I found she had many more redeemable qualities. No matter how horrible the circumstances were, Lina never lost her courage and her fighting spirit. While others gave up almost immediately, Lina channeled her emotions into her art. I could sympathize with the protagonist's passion for drawing because I feel the same way about writing. She documented all of her ordeals with paper and pencil, never losing sight of her identity. Her art was the only light she could find in a dark place. She was also there for her mother and brother, and they managed to stick together as a family due to her mother's resourcefulness and ingenuity. I really admired Lina's mother. She was a leader and a thinker. She deeply loved her children and would have sacrificed anything for them. She showed compassion for people she barely knew, and she made sure she took care of others even when she had nothing to offer.
The characters in Between Shades of Gray were far from perfect. Many of them turned their neighbors in to save themselves. Others worked as spies for the Communist Secret Police. But there were some touching moments when we see the goodness in humanity at the most desperate of times. The guards themselves were terrifying, especially the commander. The NKVD treated the Lithuanians like animals, though even animals are given shelter and regular meals. Between Shades of Gray made me appreciate my every meal, my warm bed, and the roof over my head. I feel like if I had been in Lina's shoes, I would have broken down right away.
My favorite parts of Between Shades of Gray were the flashbacks to Lina's life in Lithuania. They were evenly interspersed amongst the present day scenes in the work camp. These flashbacks were very bittersweet; a sad reminder of how happy Lina and her family were before Stalin's shadow covered all of their home country. While Lina's father wasn't with them in the work camp, the reader gets to know him through the flashbacks, making her family's concern for him all the more painful.
I will warn you that Between Shades of Gray can be very grim, and Septys doesn't sugarcoat the horrific scenes. I would not read it if you think it would be too disturbing for your liking. As I said before, I was on the brink of tears many times. I don't know how I managed to not bawl like a baby. But while it was upsetting, I enjoyed this book so much and it far exceeded my expectations. It was rich in detail and history, and it left me feeling sad but also satisfied.