Review of Between Shades of Gray
Unfortunately for author Ruta Sepetys, her YA novel Between Shades of Gray debuted around the same time as the decidedly not YA book Fifty Shades of Gray also hit bookstores. However, though I haven’t read the latter, I’ll venture a guess that Sepetys’ book is better.
Between Shades of Gray begins in Lithuania in 1941. World War 2 is becoming more threatening by the day, and Stalin is determined to clear out all those who threaten his reign- namely professors, artists, and intellectuals. Lina’s father, a professor at a Lithuanian university, is on his list, and Lina, along with her mother and brother, find themselves herded onto a traincar in the middle of the night, headed for an unknown destination. Lina’s father is not with them, having been sent to a Siberian prison and sentenced to death. A budding artist, Lina documents her experiences through drawings, even though, if the pictures were found, she too might find herself on the wrong end of a gun. After weeks on a train, during which Lina and her fellow passengers band together, the entire car is dumped on a beet farm and forced to work in unimaginable conditions. As her fellow prisoners die steadily, Lina, her brother Jonas, her mother, and her new friend Andrius try to keep up their morale and hope to make it out of the imprisonment alive.
Many World War II books take place in England, Germany, or another location that was affected by Hitler and the Holocaust. While no doubt a story that deserves to be told, I couldn’t believe that I had never really heard about the evacuations of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. The stories are similar in that a power-hungry ruler bent on “purifying” Europe deported (and ultimately killed) millions of people, imprisoning them inhumanely and convincing their fellow countrymen of the victims’ “criminal record.” Neither can be called crueler than the other; in both cases, innocent human beings were punished and killed. I found Lina’s story, which is fictional but takes threads from many true stories, infuriating and saddening.
These stories are often told from a teen’s point of view because teens feel emotions more deeply, observe happenings more closely, and are still learning who they are. To have the latter process interrupted by constant tragedy is what makes these stories so fitting for a teen voice. Lina is a great character, because she is caring and intelligent, as well as being impulsive, a little bratty, and thrust into a world she could have never imagined. Especially because she is an artist, Lina sees the world differently from a lot of those she’s imprisoned with, and risks her life to record what happens to her.
It is obvious when handsome Andrius is introduced in the beginning of the book that he is intended to be Lina’s love interest, but I was relieved to find that the romance, while present, was very secondary to the rest of the story. Though Lina certainly likes Andrius, she has bigger things to worry about than what Andrius thinks of her. I think that makes the brief moments they spend together on the page even sweeter- they’re rare happy moments in Lina’s life, the kind she should have had more of at her age.
Sepetys doesn’t shy away from the disgusting way the prisoners, but especially the women, are treated by the officers and guards. For the first few weeks at the camp, many of the prisoners shun Andrius’ mother, sure she must have agreed to spy for Stalin’s officers because she is kept warm and clean. They ostracize her further when they learn that she is sleeping with the officers. Only discovering the truth- that the men threatened to kill Andrius if his mother didn’t sleep with them- makes them retract their harsh judgments. At one point, when Lina’s mother starts to receive extra rations, Lina wonders (and Jonas wonder aloud) if her mother isn’t doing the same. Her mother is shocked and hurt by this accusation from her own children.
While it is certainly not a statistic that all YA books (or all books in general) end with a happy or even hopeful ending, I must admit that I was shocked by the bleak ending of Between Shades of Gray. But it’s only appropriate; Lena’s story may be fictional, but it was a very real truth for those imprisoned that serving 15 years in these camps was not an empty threat to keep them obedient. The citizens actually did serve that many years, or more. Those who went in as children emerged as adults. Worst, their time in the camps was, and still is, denied by many in their respective countries. Unlike the Holocaust, the camp imprisonment of the Lithuanian, Estonian, and Finnish people is never spoken of, and even today, the few that are left are still begging for the recognition of Stalin’s crimes. This book, while a fictional testament written by a young girl, is more than that. It’s also a way to get the message out to a different audience, one that might listen.