An Engrossing, Affecting, Essential Novel
by Ruta Sepetys
Publication Date: March 2011
Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
Format: Hardcover, 344pp
Age Range: Young Adult
Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they’ve known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin’s orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions.
Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously – and at great risk – documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father’s prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives. Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.
“He threw his burning cigarette onto our clean living room floor and ground it into the wood with his boot. We were about to become cigarettes.”
Between Shades of Gray is a lean book, with direct prose, short chapters, and quick pacing. Straight from the start, the reader is carried along at a breakneck pace, and you find yourself gripping tightly to Lina in the midst of the chaos and confusion. This is not the kind of book you can take lightly. It is not to be read at your leisure. If you like to read multiple things at the same time, alternating between them, you’ll find that you can’t do that here. The subject matter is engrossing and the story will demand your complete attention. More than that, it will demand your entire being.
It’s a story that must be told, by the protagonist and her author. Some subjects and experiences are painfully difficult to talk about. But art can facilitate both the expression and sharing of strong emotions. Lina’s drawing allows her catharsis: Just as she washes away accumulated dirt and grime in the bathhouse, Lina sketches to move the horrific scenes from her mind to paper. In so doing, she cleanses her spirit of the darkness in the world that threatens to break her spirit and body. Her drawings speak the words Lina cannot express. And they will speak for her, telling a story that she will carry in silence for the rest of her life. They document what happened to her and others like her. They will expose the truth that man is capable of great evil.
Yet, while the art of both author and protagonist uncovers an ugly truth, beauty is revealed. Lina learns that even in the most smothering darkness, there is always light. It may be hiding where we least expect to find it. And sometimes, when we cannot find it in our surroundings, we need to look for in ourselves. We need to hold on to that light — happy memories, hope, dreams, goodness, kindness, generosity, and most importantly, love. When love and light are present, the human spirit will endure.
— Dawn Teresa
5 of 5 Hearts. An Engrossing, Affecting, Essential Novel.
Between Shades of Gray is a story that should not only be read, it should be shared — passed from one to another like Lina’s handkerchief.
So none may forget.