Goodreads: Between Shades of Gray
Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction
One night fifteen-year-old Lina, her mother and young brother are hauled from their home by Soviet guards, thrown into cattle cars and sent away. They are being deported to Siberia. An unimaginable and harrowing journey has begun. Lina doesn’t know if she’ll ever see her father or her friends again. But she refuses to give up hope. Lina hopes for her family. For her country. For her future. For love – first love, with the boy she barely knows but knows she does not want to lose… Will hope keep Lina alive?
Late one evening in 1941, 15-year-old Lina is dragged out of her home by Soviet soldiers, alongside her mother and brother. She’s confused, scared, worried for her father and most of all wondering, why them? This story chronicles their journey to and their experience in Siberia where Lina and hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians, Estonians, and Latvians identified as criminals against Soviet rule were deported to slave in labour camps or outright exterminated. With her world torn apart and having to deal with trauma, loss, grief and despair, Lina keeps a tight hold to the hope of survival through her memories and love of art.
“Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.”
This was a harrowing and heartbreaking novel full of enduring hope in the face of absolute brutality and injustice. It was a testament to hope and love and kindness. I have always been gripped by historical fictions ever since I read books like Anne Frank’s Diary, the Devil’s Arithmetic, Night, and others in school. I admit though, that I didn’t have any prior knowledge about the same horrors happening in other countries and to other peoples during that same period. This was a very educational read, as much as it was a poignant account of those who suffered under Soviet rule.
“Was it harder to die or harder to be the one who survived? I was sixteen, an orphan in Siberia, but I knew. It was the one thing I never questioned. I wanted to live.”
Sepetys writes in a simple, yet powerful and compelling way that made it difficult to put this book down. I dreaded having to leave for work in the morning because I knew I had to put it to the back of mind and I couldn’t wait to race home and pick it up again at days end. I thought that all the characters in the book were well written and many of them had believably mature personas that I oftentimes forgot that Lina was only a teenager and her brother Jonas, only a boy.
I greatly admired Lina’s strength of character throughout her story and her ability to keep hanging on to hope even in the most dire of circumstances and through the most debilitating of losses. Her strength and even youthful optimism in the face of adversity lent a lightness and much needed hopefulness to the situation that reminded me in ways of Anne Frank and her perception of her situation. Just as Anne did, I liked that rebellious Lina recorded events through her art and writing, despite the dangers of being discovered. Maybe it was selfish at times but it was also her way of ensuring that nothing was ever forgotten. What I also found very inspiring was that despite the amount of suffering that was inflicted upon Lina, her family and those around her, there was so much forgiveness and even kindness given to the enemy. All the characters felt so very much like family at the end and even the most frustrating/maddening characters managed to redeem themselves too.
Although I felt the ending came quite abruptly, I can see why it was done that way, and I thought it wrapped the story up on a positive note, giving readers hope that there will be a somewhat happy ending to this story after all.
“…evil will rule until good men or women choose to act. It is my greatest hope that the pages…stir your deepest well of human compassion. I hope they prompt you to do something, to tell someone. Only then can we ensure that this kind of evil is never allowed to repeat itself.”
This book made me think a lot about how despite having learned something from our history, it seems that we haven’t learned enough from it. There is still so much fear in people—fear of differences and of things that they don’t understand. It’s disheartening to know that there are still so many greedy, selfish and egotistical people in positions of power who use their words and actions to rouse hatred towards and stoke fear of others. But still, I believe in the power of human compassion and I stand with those who find the strength to step up against these types of people and their abhorrent actions. In her authors note at the end, Sepetys gave more background information to the Soviet massacre of over three million citizens of the Baltic states. I think the greatest lesson to be taken from this novel was beautifully summarized by her:
“Some wars are about bombings. For the people of the Baltics, this was 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… These three tiny nations have taught us that love is the most powerful army… —love reveals to us the truly miraculous nature of the human spirit.”
This was a fast and beautifully written read. I definitely look forward to reading more books written by Ruta Sepetys!
Have you read The Astonishing Color of After? What’d you think of it? Let me know in the comments and let’s chat!