Between Shades of Gray
by Ruta Sepetys
Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group
“How could we stand up for ourselves if everyone cowered in fear and refused to speak?
I had to speak.” (pg. 55)
I am almost at a loss for words after reading this, Ruta Sepetys’ debut novel.
(Which is another matter altogether. This is the work of someone who has been writing for a long, long time. Or, perhaps, someone who has carried a certain story for a long, long time.)
Between Shades of Gray is, indeed, just that: a story that doesn’t lose you. It haunts you because of the shattering losses (of childhood, of innocence, of family and of country) that are described within these pages. Going into it, you know that many of the events actually occurred but – as the back jacket flap states – this is a story seldom told.
This is the story of Josef Stalin’s reign of terror through genocide in the Baltic states during World War II and how hundreds of thousands of people were deported from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, only to be sent to Siberia. There, they were sentenced to years of torture in hard labor camps. Among them were women and young children, including members of Ruta Sepetys’ family. (She is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee.)
The prose in Between Shades of Gray is simple and spare – yet stark and searing. It’s written from the perspective of Lina Vilkas, who is 15 years old and an aspiring, talented artist when she is deported by the Soviets to the barren lands of Siberia and the actual honest-to-God real North Pole of the frigid Arctic Circle with her mother and younger brother. Even while captive, Lina courageously finds a way to honor her missing father and to give voice to the unimaginable suffering through her drawings.
Sepetys chooses to tell this story in a novel that reads almost memoir-like. That’s a reflection on the extensive interviews and research that Sepetys conducted for the novel; many of the incidents that occur in the book actually occurred. Knowing this, it is astonishing that anyone in the camps actually survived (I gasped at the ending, when it was revealed how long Lina and her family were imprisoned.)
As future generations become more removed from World War II, names like Stalin will become just that – just names. We will forget, and the stories will become detached to their names. We can’t forget that there were real people and real lives that simply disappeared when Stalin eradicated entire countries (Lithuania, Lativa, and Estonia) from the map from 1941 until 1990.
Between Shades of Gray has been described as an important book – and it truly is. It’s a young adult novel, but that seems almost a mis-characterization. It’s more historical fiction, really, but with that crossover appeal that makes it on par with The Diary of Anne Frank for its historical significance, perhaps even moreso. For as much as we know about the Holocaust and as important as it is for future generations to continue to learn about it, the ethnic cleansing that occurred in the Baltics is just as much a pivotal, important event in history that most people don’t know much about.
“It was hard to imagine that war raged somewhere in Europe. We had a war of our own, waiting for the NKVD to choose the next victim, to throw us in the next hole. They enjoyed hitting and kicking us in the fields. One morning, they caught an old man eating a beet. A guard ripped out his front teeth with pliers. They made us watch ….
My art teacher had said if you breathed deeply and imagined something, you could be there. You could see it, feel it. During our standoffs with the NKVD, I learned to do that. I clung to my rusted dreams during the times of silence. It was at gunpoint that I fell into every hope and allowed myself to wish from the deepest part of my heart. Komorov thought he was torturing us. But we were escaping into a stillness within ourselves. We found strength there.” (pg. 163-164)
This is not an easy book to read but, as I said, it’s an incredibly important one. And, ultimately, a hopeful one, too.