Author: Ruta Sepetys
Publication Date: March 22, 2011
Publisher: Philomel Books
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Lina 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.
I will admit that historical fiction is not my go to genre... especially not WWII historical fiction. I read Salt To the Sea by Ruta Sepetys earlier this year and came away having learned a lot of history and also with a fantastic story that I really hadn't expected. Despite the content of either book being outside of my comfort zone, I decided to give her another try with Between Shades of Gray. I'm so glad I did!
This is the story of Lina, a teenager in Lithuania who is suddenly ripped from her home one night alongside her mother and brother without any explanation. She is separated from her father and does not know where he is or why her family has been taken. The three of them are thrown into a train car alongside many other Lithuanians who have also been arrested for unknown reasons. While aboard the train she meets many people, but the most important is Andrius, who becomes very close to her and her brother throughout their journey.
The characters in this book were amazing. I loved Lina and her family, I loved Andrius and his mother, and I loved most of the other secondary characters introduced. Lina was incredibly strong for being such a young girl, almost to the point of being reckless, but it was easy to sympathize with her decisions. I felt for Lina's mother so much as she tried to make the best decisions for her children in such dire circumstances. Although romance is far from the main focus of this story, I loved the relationship between Andrius and Lina. The evolution of their friendship (and sometimes not-friendship) was believable and heart-wrenching at times. I could really feel how much they depended on each other during their time in the camps.
Although the characters are incredibly written, Between Shades of Gray is not an easy book to read. This is a book about a family in Soviet work camps. The trials the characters in this book face are difficult and uncomfortable to read about. But even with all of the terrible events that Between Shades of Gray covers, there are glimpses of goodness, not only in Lina and the other prisoners, but occasionally in those around them. It's nice to think that even in a time of great tragedy, there is good in the world. Ruta Sepetys also knows how to create an atmosphere that feels real. The writing is immersive, sometimes uncomfortably so, but it helped me to connect with the story and the characters on a level that a lesser writer wouldn't have been able to accomplish.
My major complaint about Between Shades of Gray is that it moved very, very slowly. I think that perhaps this works with the story because a big point in the book is that time does move slowly for Lina. Still, I did find myself wishing that things would move along a time or two, especially early on. I also didn't love the way the book ended (a bit abruptly), although I did like the information presented in the epilogue.
Overall, Between Shades of Gray was a really good read! I'm not sure what everyone else was taught in school, but this is one area that my curriculum blazed through at lightening speed and, like with Salt To the Sea, I feel like I came away knowing a lot more about a historical period than I did going in. I did have a couple of issues with this book, but not enough to detract much from my reading experience. If you're a fan of historical fiction, I recommend giving this a try!