Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.
In 1941, fifteen-year-old Lina is preparing for art school, first dates, and all that summer has to offer. But one night, the Soviet secret police barge violently into her home, deporting her along with her mother and younger brother. They are being sent to Siberia. Lina’s father has been separated from the family and sentenced to death in a prison camp. All is lost.
Lina fights for her life, fearless, vowing that if she survives, she will honor her family, and the thousands like hers, by documenting their experiences in her art and writing. She risks everything to use her art as messages, hoping they will make their way to her father’s prison camp to let him know they are still alive.
Between Shades of Gray is due to be released in March 2011 and is written for the young adult market. I have to say it is one of the most heart-wrenching stories I have ever read, but one that is undeniably important.
I have to admit I’m not very good with history and therefore never knew a great deal about Stalin and the terrible events that inspired Ruta Sepetys to write this novel. Stalin killed more than twenty million people – anyone who was a teacher, artist, librarian, doctor, lawyer and so on. They committed no crime but were sentenced to 10-20 years of either being imprisoned or working in labour camps.
I found myself feeling shocked and dismayed at what the people of the Baltic states had to endure. I couldn’t, and still cannot understand how anyone could live through it all and live to tell the tale. Of course in those days if anyone uttered a word about it you were instantly executed. These people had been tortured and tormented and yet they could not say a single word about it. It is as though they had never stopped being tortured.
There are some terribly upsetting moments throughout this book – ones which brought tears to my eyes and I must say I rarely ever cry at books. It was just so hard to read what these people were going through on a daily basis, forced to watch their friends and relatives being murdered, or knowing that a young boys mother was being raped repeatedly just to keep him alive, or the bodies of loved ones being dumped in a pile in the snow, not even being allowed to bury them.
The characters are very well written and I really felt like I was on this journey with them. Lina’s love for her family, and her strength and will to survive are all very touching. She never once doubts her want to survive. Her relationship with fellow refugee Andrius is very well done. It wasn’t some cheesy war love story. They take time in building up trust and friendship before they realise just how much they like and need one another.
Lina’s mother Elena is probably my most favourite character. She never once puts herself before others, she is constantly sharing her food with the other refugees, she treats all of them like her family – even the ones who aren’t so nice. She brings hope to everyone around her – even those who are working for Stalin. It is interesting that Sepetys included a Soviet guard who is shown to help the refugees, which was based on real events. It is easy to judge the ‘bad guys’ and lump them all in the same category. But this book reminds us that not all of them are bad through and through – some were just doing what they were told to do, what they were told was the right thing to do. But it is people like them who helped the refugees survive. I’m sure many more would have died if it wasn’t for their kindness at times.
There are a lot of violent, brutal scenes in this novel and so I would only recommend it to the older teens but it really is a very important novel, and I hope that Sepetys achieves her goal of having this book introduced to schools and getting pupils to read this, to educate themselves on a time that has somehow been lost. It is a time that we must all remember and never forget.
There is a brilliant video over on the official website. It is well worth watching as it has survivor’s accounts of the atrocities they experienced, as well as an overview of Sepetys research.
Make sure you look out for this novel next year and I would love to know what other people think of it!