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 am not ashamed to say I often purchase a book based solely on its cover or title and this read was once such purchase. Little did I know that between the pretty covers is a strong, emotional, and compelling story that is a fictionalized account of historical events and is based on survivor testimony. In Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys draws the reader into the cold and cruel world of World War II and the Lithuanian (Estonian and Latvian too) deportees whose story is often completely overshadowed by that of the Jews.
The night Lina, her mother and younger brother are taken from their home by Russian soldiers – on Stalin’s orders – is a night the young girl will never forget. Sadly, despite how awful this night is, it is the last night for many, many long years that Lina will know a sense of safety and security. Lina and her family are only three of many who are being rounded up and loaded into cattle cars where they are soon to discover they are being deported to Siberia. Their crime is much the same as the Jews, they existed. The initial ride is long and brutal with people being packed into the cattle cars like sardines. Within a few short weeks hunger is rampant, the stench from both human waste and the dead is unbearable, and most among the living are covered head to toe with lice. All the more horrifying is the treatment given to the deportees by the soldiers, men who clearly hate those they do not know and care not for anyone’s comfort but their own. While you would never expect there to be any moments of happiness or kindness during such horrific times, there are in fact a few. Lina’s mother is kind and generous and often encourages both her children and the others gathered with them to act similarly. She encourages all to come together and help one another as best they can. And, she leads by example, sharing the limited food they are given with those who need it most, sharing her warmth (literally and emotionally) with all who will accept it, and often putting herself in harm’s way in order to protect another. While Lina is often frustrated by her mother’s behavior and tells her they must fight back Lina ultimately learns her mother’s kindness and generosity are the means by which she fights back.
No matter the circumstances, their location, or their treatment, Lina never gives up hope that she and her family will survive this horrific ordeal and be reunited with her father. To that extent, anytime they are allowed (read bargain, barter, or bribe) to send a letter, Lina leaves clues as to their whereabouts for her father hidden in her artwork. This is a treacherous and risky course for Lina to take but one she feels is worth the risk. Thankfully Lina is stubborn and single-minded in this pursuit because after a time she and many of the other deportees are once again loaded into cattle cars and then a barge where they are dumped in the middle of Siberia just a few short months before the raging winter arrives.
As if the story, up to this point weren’t bad enough, the time in Siberia is unbelievable. By this time most of the deportees are nothing more than skin and bones, they are malnourished, and most harbor some illness that is just looking for the smallest of opportunities to become worse and claim yet another life. They are weak yet still expected to build large-scale buildings for the soldiers’ comfort and their own shelters with whatever materials they can scavenge and/or steal. Inexplicably, Lina and her group, which still includes her mother and her younger brother, are able to construct a small enclosure that provides only the barest of protection against the harsh Siberian environment. For most, Siberia is the final stop on their life journey.
The Bottom Line: Between Shades of Gray took me completely by surprise with its power and message and though it is a very hard story to read in terms of its subject matter it is also very hard to put down. Without doubt, Between Shades of Gray is driven by its characters and though Lina and her family are fictional characters, they, and all the characters, are based on the accounts of survivors collected by Ruta Sepetys during her research for this novel.
As Sepetys clearly notes the Lithuanians, Estonians, and Latvians were geographically stuck between two enormous evils – Russia and Germany – and both evils wanted them all gone. Like so many others from this tragic period in human history, the names of all those who suffered and died are not known and Sepetys has remained true to this by giving a few of characters descriptions rather than names. The bald man and the man who wound his watch for example; though these characters are not named, they are just as real as Lina and her family.
Then, there are the soldiers, a mindless, faceless group whose deplorable treatment of other human beings brought out a special kind of hatred in me. Whether intentional or not, Sepetys creates characters who are heroic even in their darkest moments as well as characters we can all hope have found their very special place in Hell.
On a more positive note, Sepetys also made sure to include the moments of kindness, love and hope, all of which existed alongside and in spite of the pure evil. Lina finds love that will last her a lifetime, some who never should have survived do because of the care and compassion of others, and those who did not survive met their deaths with honor. It is among these moments that I was reminded of the triumph of the human spirit and the power of the positive to counteract the negative.
Should you choose to pick up Between Shades of Gray, and I highly recommend that you do, I would also suggest reading the author’s note and interview which follow the conclusion of the book. There is a wealth of information to be found there including the primary reason so many of us never knew the story of the Lithuanian, Estonian, and Latvian survivors of WWII.