Between Shades of Gray

Ruta Sepetys
  • Review
By – September 1, 2011
In 1941 Lithua­nia, fif­teen-year-old Lina enjoys danc­ing, out­ings with her friends and being a teenag­er; she pre­pares to attend art school where she can per­fect her won­der­ful gift of draw­ing and become a famous artist. Her dreams are hope­less­ly shat­tered on the night of June 14 when the Sovi­et Secret Police knock on the door late one evening and arrest Lina, her ten-year-old broth­er Jonas, and her strong-willed moth­er. We need more time. We’ll be ready in the morn­ing,” Moth­er said. Twen­ty min­utes — or you won’t live to see morn­ing,” said the offi­cer. So begins the des­o­late jour­ney of the family’s depor­ta­tion to a forced-labor camp in Siberia on a crammed cat­tle car, where they are shown no mer­cy and fight for dai­ly sur­vival by find­ing strength in each oth­er.

Told through the eyes of Lina, this is a hor­ri­fy­ing and provoca­tive account of Joseph Stalin’s reign of ter­ror and the effect it had on the Lithuan­ian pop­u­la­tion; her father has been tar­get­ed as a polit­i­cal activist by the Sovi­ets and tak­en as a pris­on­er, but Lina fierce­ly believes she will find him and uses her art as her sal­va­tion. She fer­vent­ly draws on scraps of paper and frag­ments of cloth, pass­ing her sketch­es through oth­er depor­tees in the hope they may reach her father. Although she is sur­round­ed by filth, squalor, and bru­tal­i­ty, Lina’s spir­it remains unbro­ken. Author Ruta Sepetys seam­less­ly inter­weaves flash­backs of Lina’s past into the nar­ra­tive — a rainy day in the park where a rain­bow appears, shop­ping for a new dress with her mom, draw­ing exer­cis­es with her dad — and these are the mem­o­ries that help Lina look to the future. A bud­ding romance with fel­low cap­tive Andrius makes life in the camp almost bear­able until Lina and her fam­i­ly are once again relo­cat­ed to the Siber­ian Arc­tic with­out shel­ter and lit­tle nour­ish­ment; her belief in Andrius, that he will some­how find her, and the exam­ple of her mother’s coura­geous in the face of adver­si­ty make Lina believe her only choice is to sur­vive, one day at a time. Sepetya, a child of a Lithuan­ian refugee, grew up hear­ing sto­ries about her father’s past where the Russ­ian geno­cide result­ed in a loss of almost a third of the pop­u­la­tion of the Baltic states and want­ed to give a voice to the hun­dreds of thou­sands who lost their voic­es.” Her debut nov­el is bru­tal­ly hon­est and at times painful­ly bleak, such as the train ride to the camps where the depor­tees fight over a pin­point of air or Lina and her mom being forced to dig a ditch, then being told to lie in it with a gun point­ed toward their heads. The mem­o­rable char­ac­ter­i­za­tions and intri­cate writ­ing illu­mi­nat­ed with small acts of kind­ness and per­pet­u­al strength tell a poignant piece of his­to­ry that needs to be shared with young adults today. Cou­pled with the clas­sic, The End­less Steppe: Grow­ing Up in Siberia by Esther Hautzig, this title would be a won­der­ful gate­way to class­room dis­cus­sion and be very use­ful for high school libraries. Rec­om­mend­ed for age 13 and up.
Debra Gold has been a children’s librar­i­an for over 20 years in the Cuya­hoga Coun­ty Pub­lic Library Sys­tem. An active mem­ber of the ALA, she has served on many com­mit­tees includ­ing the Calde­cott, New­bery and Batchelder committees.

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