Review of “Between Shades of Gray” by Ruta Sepetys

This story begins just after the invasion of Lithuania by the Soviet Union during World War II, and graphically portrays the hardships endured by those who were sent off to Soviet labor camps.

In 1940, the Soviet Union occupied all of the territory of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and the Red Army installed new, pro-Soviet governments in all three countries. [The author, in her note, writes that the occupation began in 1939, but only partial and preliminary steps were taken in that year. In August of 1939 the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany concluded the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the secret protocols of which divided Central and Eastern Europe into respective spheres of influence. Lithuania, initially assigned to the German sphere of influence, was transferred to the Soviets in the secret German–Soviet Boundary and Friendship Treaty of September 28, 1939. The Soviets stationed troops within Lithuania but did not demand the formation of a new pro-Soviet government until June 1940. Lithuania “accepted” since effective military resistance was impossible with Soviet troops already within the country. Following rigged elections, in which only pro-Soviet candidates were allowed to run, the newly “elected” parliaments of the three Balkan countries formally applied to “join” the U.S.S.R. in August 1940 and were annexed into it as the Estonian SSR, the Latvian SSR, and the Lithuanian SSR.]

In June of 1941, the Soviets began deporting citizens from the Baltic countries to Siberia. Hundreds of thousands of people (at first, mostly former military officers, policemen, political figures, intelligentsia and their families) were sent to the notorious Gulags, or labor camps. Many perished due to inhumane conditions. (Less than a half of people deported in 1941 returned to Lithuania after 15 or more years. It should be noted however that deportations continued even after the end of World War II.) This fictional account which includes a coming-of-age story is an excellent way to present this history to young people.

In Between Shades of Gray, Lina Vilkas, fifteen, is arrested along with her mother and ten-year-old brother Jonas by the NKVD, or Soviet secret police. The family assumes that the father was already taken on his way home, since he never returned from work.

Along with other arrestees they are packed into cattle cars, but not told what their destinations would be. In Lina’s car, as in all of them, the conditions are horrid and some of them die over the long course of their journey (over a year in length) as they travel to Siberia. We learn about their low rations, their struggle for fresh air to breathe, the smells, the sicknesses, the humiliations of their forced intimacy, and their desperation for information about their own fate and that of their families.

Andrius Arvydas is a handsome boy of seventeen who is on Lina’s train along with his mother. Andrius and Lina become friends, but later, in the labor camp, when Andrius and his mother get “special” treatment, Lina refuses to take Andrius’s offer of extra food, and accuses them of spying. In an angry exchange, Andrius explains that his mother was forced to be a prostitute for the NKVD, who threatened to kill Andrius if she didn’t comply:

’You have no idea how much I hate myself for putting my mother through this, how every day I think of ending my life so she can be free. But instead, my mother and I are using our misfortune to keep others alive. But you wouldn’t understand that, would you? You’re too selfish and self-centered. Poor you, digging all day long. You’re just a spoiled kid.’ He turned and walked away.”

Lina feels awful and wants to let Andrius know how sorry she is. But then Lina is taken away to a different camp, and she doesn’t know if she will ever see Andrius again, or whether each of them will even survive.

Discussion: At the end of the book, the author adds a personal note about the historical context of Lina’s story. She includes a plea to spread the word about the fate of Baltic peoples under Stalin:

Some wars are about bombing. For the people of the Baltics, this war was about believing. In 1991, after fifty years of brutal occupation, the three Baltic countries regained their independence, peacefully and with dignity. They chose hope over hate and showed the world that even through the darkest night, there is light. Please research it. Tell someone. These three tiny nations have taught us that love is the most powerful army. Whether love of friend, love of country, love of God, or even love of enemy – love reveals to us the truly miraculous nature of the human spirit.”

Evaluation: While there are a number of accounts of the Jewish holocaust for young adults, there are not many relating to the atrocities committed by Stalin. It’s certainly a story that deserves to be known, and this author does an admirable job in showing that there were villains and heroes on all sides. The details of the disease and hunger and awful work conditions are well-presented, and the author does not sacrifice realism for sentiment.

I was somewhat bothered by the fact that one of the most obnoxious characters was the only Jew in the group. Given that Lithuanians had an egregious record in terms of their enthusiasm for assisting the Nazis, I thought this was inappropriate.

On the whole, however, this is a beautiful and worthwhile story, and should give young people a lot to think about, and perhaps a better sense of all they can be grateful for in their own lives.

Rating: 4/5

Format: Hardcover, 338 pages
Published: March 22nd 2011 by Philomel Books

Note: You can read an interview with the author about this book on BermudaOnion’s blog, here. And if you read BermudaOnion’s touching review, you can see how this book impacted her personally. She also includes, as part of the review, an eleven minute video about the book and the story it tells that includes interviews with survivors.

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16 Responses

  1. I loved this review. I have read so many good things about this book, and have a copy waiting for me. Hopefully I can make time for it soon because it sounds like there is a lot of emotion and intensity going on in this story. Thanks for sharing this incredible and detailed review with us. I appreciated it!

  2. As you know, this book touched me on a very personal level. My mom and I have talked about it quite a bit and I learned more about what some of my family members went through. I’m glad to see that part of history getting more attention. Thanks for linking my review to your excellent review.

  3. I’ve wanted to read this one since I first heard about it about six months ago. I won it in a contest earlier this year, but it never got to me. :( I’ve got it on request from the library now but have to wait in line for it.

  4. Dawn sent Heather and I the book, and I passed it to Heather because I thought I had won the book in a giveaway, but apparently not! I just got some bookmarks and stuff. So. I need to get my hands on it at some point. My husband is the world’s authority on WWII atrocities, and have heard my share about Stalin’s form of evil. The book trailer was pretty awesome if you haven’t seen it.

  5. You’re right that we don’t learn much about Stalin’s atrocities and hopefully this book will help bring it to people’s attention. It’s just as important to remember this as it is the Holocaust because of the numbers of people damaged or killed.

  6. Great review! I really wanted to read this one and I was supposed to get a copy but it never did arrive which is too bad. It definitely sounds as though this one is worth reading!

  7. I remember reading Kathy’s review of this one and a few others. I have a copy, but it’s packed. Looking forward to reading it after we move. Enjoyed the extra info you provided.

  8. I thought this story was so interesting and I cried a number of times. I can’t wait to share it with my daughter.

  9. Wow, what a powerful story and I agree that more should be written about Stalin’s evil. I don’t think there is enough about that available for either adults or young adults. Great review!

  10. You’re right. We should be more knowledgeable about this part of history. I know I should read this book. I find I’m very ignorant in this area.

  11. I have this one on my TBR list for sure but after your great review I’m bumping it up a few notches.

  12. I thought this book was sounding familiar and then you mentioned Bermudaonion’s review at the end and it clicked into place.

  13. I admit that I get worried by statements like, “I was somewhat bothered by the fact that one of the most obnoxious characters was the only Jew in the group.” I feel like that is a really slippery slope to go down. I don’t like racial profiling in literature AT ALL, but as for writing individual characters in ways that particular readers may dislike… I don’t think that necessarily means that an entire race/ethnicity/minority/sub-group is being commented on.

  14. I took this book out of the library and can’t wait to read it. You definitely read more about Hitler than Stalin in fiction these days, so I’m hoping to learn more about WWII from this book. I will link to your review on War Through the Generations.

  15. I received this book from my mom back in November 2010, when she got it from a book conference; it was an advanced copy. This is my favorite book I’ve ever read. And I have read/own hundreds of books. I loved the relationship between Andrius and Lina. Though it happened differently from the review said; Andrius & Lina make up long before they are separated. This is a wonderful book. I am going to reread soon and I hope to one day meet the author.

  16. I’m currently working on my bachelor’s degree in International Studies, and although I’m concentrating on the Middle East, I take elective classes in Eastern European history every chance I get, so this review caught my eye when I saw that it was set in Lithuania/Siberia. I’m glad to hear it was good – it’s definitely going on my list of books to read.

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