Between Shades of Gray
By Ruta Sepetys
Rating: 4.5 Stars
In an effort to get out of my metaphorical turtle shell, I decided to be social for once and join a book club at my kick-ass local book shop. Surprisingly, this is something I’ve never done before since I’m pretty sure school doesn’t count. Luckily, they had the perfect YA group for me (and no, I thankfully wasn’t the only adult still reading books for teens) and I dove right in to September’s selection. And man, did this made me FEEL some things.
Lina’s life changed on June 14, 1941 and it would never be the same. One moment she’s living a wonderful, normal life with her two loving parents and baby brother in Lithuania. The next, Soviet soldiers are ominously standing in their house yelling and her mother is ordering Lina to pack a bag. She only has minutes to grab her most precious belongings and some clothes before they’re pushed out the door. With her father absent that day, Lina, her mother Elena, and brother Jonas are put on a bus with strangers, headed to the unknown. One woman and baby are even taken from the hospital right after she gives birth. Eventually everyone is stockpiled into a dirty train car like cattle and travel for days with little food and water. As an aspiring artist, Lina spends her free time documenting people and cities in drawings with the hope of passing them along to her father.
After long weeks, the weak travelers reach their destination—the Altai Republic. All of them are treated like criminals for reasons Lina can’t understand, and thrown into Russian labor camps. While being put to work picking beets with nothing but small bread rations to keep them going, everyone must fight hunger, thirst, sleep deprivation, aggressive soldiers, and disease to stay alive. With the help of her family and a few new friends, Lina still has hope of reaching her father and finding her way back home. Just as she starts to adapt to this new life and getting close to fellow prisoner Andrius, Lina and her family are forced to travel even further up into the arctic. Everyone must band together to survive the brutal winter in nothing but a tiny shed and they even get some help from an unlikely source.
Before reading this book I knew nothing about this part of WWII. My knowledge on the subject is stripped to my basic high school education, and history was my worst class (I vividly remember being happy to get a D). And while Stalin was busy doing these awful things, the other most deplorable man in history was busy murdering millions of innocent people, effectively overshadowing everything else and partially blinding everyone in the present to Stalin’s horrific behavior. It wasn’t until I was finished reading this novel that I realized the great disparity between my knowledge of Hitler versus my knowledge of Stalin. This book is important because we need to know it all. The people who suffered deserve to have their stories told and I’m so glad Ruta Sepetys wrote this novel to educate us.
Following Lina through this journey was powerful. It was like I felt the full spectrum of human emotions in just a few hundred pages and I definitely cried like a baby at the end. Every character was rich and unique, making me extremely invested in their well-being. And Lina’s mother was the BEST!! I loved her character so much! She had a subtle strength that I really admired and respected.
Plus, the way Sepetys splices in memories from Lina’s past was so clever and I loved how it was done. Since her father is barely even in the story physically, having those flashbacks was a great way to get to know his character and his importance to the family. It also gave me a better idea of who they all are as people and see how this traumatic ordeal was changing them.
I hate to say anything negative about this book because it was so good, but I did have one major gripe. The ending just cuts off and we’re left hanging! We get some closure in the form of a letter written by an older, married Lina, but it’s all very vague. I understand that that’s kind of the point. The resolution isn’t what matters, it’s the message behind the story that’s most important. But after going through this journey with Lina and her family, I was expecting a little more. What happened to her father? How long did they stay in Siberia? How did they make it back to Lithuania? What was her reunion with Andrius like? How did they find one another? SO MANY QUESTIONS! It kind of kills me that I’ll never get any concrete answers.
Yes, please read this book! It’s so important to know this part of history and the story is amazing. You won’t regret it!