Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
Published: 2011, Philomel Books
Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction
Source: Library book
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People I didn't know formed a circle around me, sheltering me from view. They escorted me back to our jurta, undetected. They didn't ask for anything. They were happy to help someone, to succeed at something, even if they weren't to benefit. We'd been trying to touch the sky from the bottom of the ocean. I realized that if we boosted one another, maybe we'd get a little closer.
How do I begin to describe this beautifully heartbreaking novel? As so many reviewers have said before me, Sepetys brings to life a tragedy not often spoke of within the context of World War II: the Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries and the forced deportation of millions of its inhabitants. Simply based on the historical significance, Between Shades of Gray is worth a read, but in and of itself, the novel is well-written, well-researched, and incredibly thought-provoking.
Fifteen-year-old Lina Vilkas lives a life of relative affluence in Lithuania with her father, mother, and ten-year-old brother Jonas in 1941. For many years, her passion and sense of being has been related to art, and her dreams seem to be coming true as she plans on attending a prestigious art school in the fall. Their entire lives become uprooted, however, when first her father does not come home one night, and then the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) invade their house in the middle of the night, telling her family to pack and come with them.
For Lina and her family have been targeted as agitators and potential threats against the Soviet Union's occupation of Lithuania. What follows is a chronicle of the experiences that Lina and her mother and brother undergo, from the crowded, weeks-long travels by trains to the various Russian work camps they're forced to inhabit. Lina maintains her strength and hope while recording her experience through drawings and journal entries.
Juxtaposing the terrible realities of the present with the hopes and dreams she had in the past, readers are better able to understand all that Lina has lost, all that all the deported Lithuanians have lost. After experiencing something like this, life can never be the same for these people again. At its core, however, Between Shades of Gray is about hope and support for fellow humans in the midst of inhumane circumstances. From their first terrible journey out of Lithuania on the train reserved for "thieves and prostitutes" to the Siberian labor camp of Trofimovsk, Lina and her fellow passengers endure more than most humans can even fathom. They form a community, a support system, and that, more than anything else, is what enables them to endure.
I really loved how integral art is to Lina. Although her narration makes it clear that art has always been her passion, it also becomes a method for her survival once her family is forcibly removed from their homeland and treated no better than animals. Through her drawings, Lina is able to capture the torture and anguish her people endure, while also noting the rays of hope that persist in spite of inhumane conditions. Lina forms a strong identification with Norwegian Expressionist painter Edvard Munch, best known for his painting "The Scream." And perhaps Munch's paintings do best describe the intense emotional and psychological trauma that Lina and her fellow Lithuanians endure. Everything about their lives has become abstract, surrealistic in the face of such terrible conditions. Lina demonstrates quite well how perfectly suitable art is able to express what language cannot.
Throughout the course of the novel, Sepetys painstakingly points out how none of the characters are purely good and evil. Although it does not excuse their actions, not all of the Soviet guards planned to spend their lives in such a fashion, and not all of the so-called prisoner collaborators have a choice in their collaboration. After transitioning from a sheltered life to one of unmentionable horrors, Lina and most of her countrymen are quick to assign blame and judge others for their actions. But assigning blame is never an easy matter, and, through Lina's mother's actions, an almost didactic lesson is superimposed upon this story. For who, after all, is really to blame for atrocities against humanity? The issue becomes much bigger and more complicated when more than simply individuals are at fault, when entire systems of thought are found to be faulty. Through her characters and their interactions, Sepetys brings this question to the forefront of her novel.
Between Shades of Gray is a difficult read. It's painful. It's tragic as only the truth can be. But it's important. It may be difficult to read stories like this, that really demonstrate how humanity has such a great proclivity to harm one another. But without evil, I suppose we also wouldn't have the capacity for great good. Through Lina's story, Sepetys has helped ensure that those who did suffer from similar circumstances will never be forgotten.