For months, people have been telling me how much I needed to read Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. And for months, I’ve been intending to read it, but putting it off. Then I discovered Ruta is another Nashville author, and I met her at a couple different book events. If you ever have a chance to meet her, she is just a fabulous individual. After meeting her, I went ahead and bought the book, since now I had many recommendations plus I knew I liked the author herself, but it still took me a little while to get around to reading it. And after devouring it, I can not only understand why so many people have recommended this book to me, but also add my voice to the throng of people insisting that others read it.
The Plot (from Goodreads)
It’s 1941 and fifteen-year-old artist Lina Vilkas is on Stalin’s extermination list. Deported to a prison camp in Siberia, Lina fights for her life, fearless, risking everything to save her family. It’s a long and harrowing journey and it is only their incredible strength, love, and hope that pull Lina and her family through each day. But will love be enough to keep them alive?
Okay, first of all, I didn’t even know the Baltic deportations happened. And after reading the author’s note that follows the story, a lot of people don’t know it happened. But it did. Many of the events in this book are based on things that actually happened. So I’m glad I read this book not only for the beautiful writing and the moving story, but also because it opened my eyes to an extremely dark period in human history that has been largely ignored by the rest of the world.
As for the story itself, it is heartbreaking, but also encouraging. Lina and her little brother are forced to grow up fast in the labor camps, and their strength is inspiring. Probably one of my absolute favorite characters was their mother, and I found myself aching with what she must have gone through in order to try to make life bearable for her children. I also found the array of characters extremely interesting. Not all the prisoners are inspiring — one, in particular, drove me crazy every time he opened his mouth — and not all the guards are despicable. I always find it fascinating when stories will explore why good people may be pushed to do terrible things, and while this one doesn’t dive too deeply into that subject — since its narrator is a 15-year-old deportee — it touched on it in a thought-provoking way.
The events are extremely difficult to read about. From the moment the Vilkas family is pulled from their home, nothing that happens to them is easy or pleasant. Many of the things that happen are shocking and terrible, and all the more horrifying to know that humans once found this sort of treatment acceptable. Good and admirable characters wither and die, while abominable characters thrive. Much like reading about the Holocaust, reading about the Baltic deportations is not a pleasant experience.
At the same time, the writing is lovely. Ruta tells the story using sparse and simple prose that cut straight to the emotional core of what is happening. It took no time at all for me to be completely immersed in the story, and while the events it depicted were appalling, the way they were presented was beautiful. It made the small moments of love and kindness in the midst of an incredibly bleak time shine through that much more.
I think Between Shades of Gray is already on many school reading lists, as it should be. It’s both educational and moving, a fantastic example of both fine writing and important storytelling. I loved it even as it broke my heart again and again, and I’d recommend this book to anyone.
Content Guide: Contains terrible mistreatment of prisoners including starvation, verbal abuse, sexual exploitation, humiliation, and deprivation; disturbing deaths