Title: Between Shades of Gray
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult
Publisher: Philomel Books
Release Date: March 22nd, 2011
Source: Checked out from the library
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.
I’m pretty ignorant on Russian history and Stalin’s atrocities in WWII. Technically, Russia was our ally, but after reading this book I’m rather ashamed of that. It’s one thing to say “yes, dictator, killed many people” and another to read such a seamless historical fiction handling that very topic.
The story is told from the perspective of Lina, but she’s not necessarily the character that keeps the story moving. I’d say it’s the ensemble cast, and wanting to know who survives. I didn’t actually feel very connected to any one character, but appreciated the breadth of representation: the story involves the very young, the very old, the hopeful, the embittered, and everything in between.
At first, the flashbacks threw me off. In the audiobook, there isn’t even a pause to denote a flashback. But I eventually got used to them. The audiobook was well-narrated, although this is another instance of a female narrator whose male voices sound fake. And some of her inflection was off. But overall, she paced really well and was nicely articulate.
To be honest, my only disappointment in the story is that it ended after a years’ time. What happened, for the other decade or so that Lina was in a Siberian camp during the genocide of the Baltic nations. Not that I love to see characters suffer (well, not when I know they’re based on real people, anyway), but the strength of resolve that it would take to survive years in the Arctic on 300g of bread rations a day and no medicine or extra clothing….it boggles my mind.
I highly recommend this for fans of historical fiction, especially lesser-known WWII stories, and also fans of YA. The YA side of this keeps it from going too dark and hopeless, but that isn’t to say it pulls punches.