Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys


This may be something of a “Yes, but…no, but…” review: I liked the writing, but not the pacing of the book. It covers an aspect of World War II not discussed enough (in my opinion) in children’s, YA or adult literature, but possibly not in enough detail for those of us who don’t know anything about it.

The book begins in Lithuania in 1941, when fifteen year old Lina’s life is torn apart when the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, burst into her home and give her mother twenty minutes to pack up before being deported to the labor camps. Crammed into a freight car with other refugees similarly torn from their live, homes and families, Lina, her younger brother Jonas and their mother are shipped to a forced labor camp in Siberia, where they endure starvation and the diseases which follow–from scurvy to typhus–the cold and the abuse and the uncertainty which form a common thread to all families separated in this way. Did my cousin betray us? Is my father alive? Will we ever see him again? Why are our fellow people cruel to us in this way?

Overall, yes: the book is worth reading by teenagers and adults alike. It covers a part of World War II era history not often covered in modern literature: the Soviet treatment of “dissidents1” in the satellite states they took over during the forties. Many countries, such as Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Yugoslavia and more were overrun, divided, recombined and obliterated to the point that they didn’t exist politically2 until the 1990s. The literature I’m aware of tends toward covering the activities of Nazi Germany3–also a devastating situation which deserves discussion in the public arena now…but not the only devastation of the time.

Unfortunately, I don’t care for the pacing of the book, though. The characters’ removal from their home and the weeks of the train trip across the U.S.S.R. into Siberia takes up one third of the book while the months in the forced labor camp only two thirds. The lack of information on why this is happening to them or about the father’s whereabouts isn’t the problem; the mother and children might not have known, and in some ways that ignorance makes the book more powerful for me. Wondering “Why me? What did we do? Is my father all right?” casts their suffering into greater relief. After all that heartbreaking traumatizing buildup, the swift ending, summarized largely in an epilogue, feels in no small degree as if Sepetys wasn’t sure how to end the novel; it’s on a par with “and then they woke up. It was only a dream.” In fairness, I suppose it depends on whether we regard the work solely as a work of historical fiction or as a fictionalized piece of history. if it’s the latter, then Sepetys chose the correct ending; according to her research, that burying of the victims’ story (quite literally) to be discovered by future generations was the correct way to end the novel as it happened often thus in reality. How could one speak up against a dictatorial government?

1pretty much whatever the Soviets wanted it to mean
2socially and culturally, the people were still there of course…more astute commentators might draw a comparison with modern Tibet
3though not exclusively

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2 thoughts on “Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys

  1. You could always just issue a Readers Digest Condensed Book version of “The Gulag Archipelago.” I’ve just put “Between Shades of Gray” on my hold list — Solzhenitsen is overwhelming.

  2. Definitely a better introduction to the literature of the field than [insert one of four or five romanizations of the author of The Gulag Archipelago]–shorter, and more approachable for one thing. (Also about the Lithuanian experience, but that’s another matter.) It was worth reading, and worth waiting for.

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