Author: Ruta Sepetys
Published: 2011 by Philomel Books and Puffin Books
Source of book: the library
SYNOPSIS FROM GOODREADS
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.
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
In my most recent history course at school we studied major turning points in Finnish history, and obviously the time of the World Wars was an important part of the course. Finland fought two separate wars against the Soviet Union during the Second World War, the Winter War (1939-1940) and the Continuation War (1941-1944), and though the country lost areas of land and obviously there were many casualties, the Soviet soldiers never occupied Finland. In fact, the capital Helsinki was one of the few European capitals that weren’t occupied in World War II. Due to political reasons such as the President Paasikivi’s diplomatic and friendly approach to the Soviet Union (a prime example is the YYA treaty which was not as constricting as the similar treaties the Soviet Union made with other Eastern European countries) and the defeat of the communist party (Finnish People’s Democratic League – SKDL, Suomen Kansan Demokraattinen Liitto) in elections in 1948 Finland did not become a communist people’s republic like many Eastern European countries. Therefore most Finns did not encounter such horrible fates as Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians did at Soviet prisons and forced labour camps. Between Shades of Gray tells the story of a group of Lituanians, deported from their homeland and made to suffer in squalid conditions at work camps in the Soviet Union.
Ruta Sepetys’ novel awoke emotions of horror, pity, sorrow and disgust in me. I was not surprised by the atrocities described – which are based on true accounts - that were committed in the 1940s. However, knowing that unbelievably cruel acts have been performed sometime in history is not the same as reading about them, especially when the victims are given voices and the foul treatment against all the innocent individuals builds up into a tidal wave of suffering, pain and trauma.
Awareness of these things sometimes fills me with anguish and despair – how can humanity be so easily tossed away in favour of barbarism? – and yet, awareness is also empowering because it gives us knowledge that we can use to spread goodness, acceptance and tolerance. Sepetys writes: “These writings may shock or horrify you, but that is not my intention. It is my greatest hope that the pages in this jar 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.” I couldn’t agree more.
I liked many of the traits of this novel, in particular the historical basis, some beautiful phrases and the realistic feel of the characters’ personalities and reactions to their fates. Unfortunately I can’t say I loved Between Shades of Gray because one of the most important characteristics for me in a book, the way it was written, felt a little disjointed and awkward. I didn’t become attached to Lina’s narrative properly and in my opinion the flashbacks weren’t necessary. To be honest, they really bothered me in the beginning, but some of the ideas behind them were lovely, especially toward the end. I do want to see what else Sepetys has written and will write in the future because I see potential for her style to evolve into something I can connect with better.
As I mentioned, Sepetys created a few pearls in her prose, and I'd like to share some of those favourite quotes with you:
"Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch."
“'Sometimes there is such beauty in awkwardness. There's love and emotion trying to express itself, but at the same time, it just ends up being awkward.'”
“We'd been trying to touch the sky from the bottom of the ocean.
3½/5 A harrowing yet hope-filled historical novel about the horrors of forced labour camp!