Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

grayLina 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.

Between Shades of Gray is a very powerful novel. Be prepared to laugh out loud, get angry and cry. But also be prepared to feel informed and gain a desire to learn more.

I almost didn’t read this book. The hype surrounding it made me weary and I’m already sick of the dumbed-down romanticized YA that is mainstream. I didn’t really enjoy the first few chapter either. The first person narration didn’t do anything for me and I felt that the short, faced paced chapters tried to turn an important historical event into an action novel. Then, slowly, I began to enjoy the book more and more. With each chapter that I read I fell deeper and deeper into the story.

Lina was a really great narrator and a even better character. I formed a strong connection with her and feel like I know her fairly intimately. She has an incredible character arc that isn’t overly drastic; Lina matures and strengthens over the course of the novel. She is still the same stubborn and feisty girl, but her way of perceiving the world changes both as a result of her growing up and as a result of the terrible tragedies she is forced to endure. Jonas, her younger brother, shows tremendous growth – as do all the characters. This could easily be a true memoir; it’s that vivid. I love the fact that Lina is an artist because I connect with history when viewed through the lens of art and because as an artist myself, I always enjoy reading about characters who are artists. She is a terribly strong character, unafraid of doing what needs to be done or what is right.

Her relationship with Andrius is one of the best relationships I’ve encountered so far in YA fiction. It is one of the few that truly didn’t bother me in any way, and it adds to the story rather than detracting from it. It is natural, and it makes sense that they would fall in love given the circumstances.

The historical aspect is extremely well done. I knew next to nothing about Stalin in the Baltic countries (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) because the focus always falls on Hitler when talking about WWII. But these poor countries got the worst of both; Hitler rounded up the Jews and sent them to concentration camps and Stalin rounded up those who were anti-Soviet and sent them to work camps in Siberia. I’ve heard jokes about being sent to the gulags, but never knew what they were until now. This novel filled in a lot of gaps I had in my understanding of history. Between Shades of Gray is a very dark novel in that it bears an accurate representation of being deported and sent to Siberia. The murders, the harassment, the beatings, the starvation, the disease, it’s all there in the novel.

Hope. That’s definitely a central theme in the novel. Connected to it, love. Love gives us the power to have hope. Then there’s also the importance of art and story telling. And as the title puts in ever so nicely, all people exist between shades of gray.

I really appreciated the idea behind the novel. In her author’s note Sepetys explains that she wanted to lend a voice to a mostly hidden area of history and to tell the stories of the survivors of the deportations and lend a voice to the Baltic countries. Between Shades of Gray definitely enlightened me and hopefully, it can do the same for others too. We must not let this period of history slip into the mists of time.

Highly recommended.


One thought on “Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

  1. I read this back in junior year and was one of the few who hated the short chapters. I enjoyed the rich history and it was a heartbreaking story but I definitely felt it could’ve been told in a better format without feeling emotionally manipulated.

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