Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
Published by Philomel, an imprint of Penguin
Sixteen-year-old Lina is enjoying a regular childhood in Lithuania in 1939 when her family begins to understand that Stalin is attempting to invade, and rumors are spread about people she knows in her community who suddenly begin to disappear. Before her family has a chance to escape Lithuania, they are sent by the Russians to a forced labor camp in Siberia. Conditions at the camp are unthinkable – very similar to what the Nazis were subjecting their prisoners too at this same time in history – and Lina relies on her love of art to get her through this impossibly devastating time in her life. As other people in camp begin dying off, due to starvation, disease, and the freezing temperatures, she wonders if her mother, brother, and she will ever be reunited with her father again.
The first thing that I have to say is wow. Between Shades of Gray is absolutely a must-read. I knew I had to read it when I realized that the events described in the book are historical events that aren’t really discussed or taught in school. I hate to admit this, but I did not learn about the Russian invasion of these countries in school and even now only had a vague understanding that this happened (until picking up this book, of course). The book is heartbreaking, yes, but it is also important and tells a story that many of us wouldn’t otherwise hear.
In addition to Between Shades of Gray being an important story, the plot is engaging and the book is difficult to put down. The novel is the type that, although it’s difficult to read at times because of the subject matter, you can’t look away. I just wanted to keep reading and reading until I finished the book because I had to know how Lina’s story ended. And along the way there is plenty of devastation, death, disease, horrifying things – but I kept searching for that one kernel of hope and Sepetys kept giving it to me. Part of me didn’t want to know how it ended, because throughout the novel I felt like it couldn’t possibly end on a happy note, but another, bigger part of me had hope that something would go right for Lina and her family.
One more compelling aspect of this novel: the characters. Lina is a completely believable teenager that most teens will have no problem relating to. It’s crazy that something like this can happen to innocent people, but history has shown that this is exactly what happened, and teens will be able to easily put themselves in Lina’s shoes and let the gravity of what happened to her sink in. True, Lina is a fictional character but from my understanding she is based on Sepetys’ mother and her story is one that teens did experience during the Russian invasion of those countries at that time. I rooted for Lina the entire time I was reading the book and I definitely believed her character. She felt real to me, so the things she went through were all the more real and heartbreaking to me.
I can’t say enough about Between Shades of Gray. This book is absolutely incredible, telling a story that is not told often enough and one that many people probably don’t even know about. I give this book my highest recommendation and I urge you to read it.