It is 1941, and Lina Vilkas is a fairly normal 15-year-old girl living in Lithuania. One night, the Soviet soldiers break into her home and take her, her mother, and her younger brother, cramming them onto a train car with other people they have declared criminals. Thus begins a terrible journey north, through Siberia and up past the Arctic Circle to Trofimovsk, where Lina and the other prisoners are forced to fight for their survival in the cruelest conditions. Lina keeps a record of their journey and their struggles through her drawings, hoping that she can somehow get a message to her father about their whereabouts, but it is ultimately love and strength of will that keeps Lina alive.
This is Sepetys’s first novel, and it is a remarkable debut. She manages to tell an extremely important story that has been largely ignored by history, and she tells it well. Stalin’s regime killed tens of millions of people, and it’s very often brushed aside when the era of World War II is studied. Sepetys’s novel takes the cold, hard facts of what happened to the Lithuanian people (as well as others in Eastern Europe) and makes it personal, allowing the reader to connect on an individual level. This is a book that should be discussed and should be taught, but above all, it is a book that should be read.
The writing in Between Shades of Gray lacks embellishment and is clear. The sparseness of Sepetys’s writing allows the reader to get a clear sense of Lina’s plight without overwhelming the senses, which is essential for a book that is this upsetting. There is violence, readers, and there is death, but it is not gratuitous because it is grounded in real historical events. More than once, I had to put it down and walk away for a while because it is emotionally draining. But I always returned, because Lina’s story is compelling and important.
Everything about this book is excellent. The plotting moves at a quick enough speed to keep even the most hyperactive reader engaged. The darkest moments are intercut with moments of hope, and the flashbacks to Lina’s life before being taken by the Soviets allow the reader insight into how normal her life was. The characterization is nearly flawless, with even the most minor characters brought to life by their verbal tics and distinct personalities.
Although the Soviet occupation of Lithuania was a complex political issue, Sepetys chooses to focus less on the political struggle and more on the individual struggle, and this is what makes her book so successful. The epilogue might be a little too neat for some readers, but make no mistake: this is a book that packs an emotional punch that is well worth your time and effort. Highly, highly recommended. One of the best books of the year.
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, Philomel Books: 2011. Library copy.