This novel 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 accuses them of spying and refuses to take Andrius’s offer of extra food. 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 toward all people 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 that they can be grateful for in their own lives.
Published by Philomel Books, 2011