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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Between Shades of Gray

Sepetys, Ruta. 2011. BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY. New York: Philomel Books.

Some of the last century's most harrowing stories didn't come to the surface to be told until much, much later. One case of this was the deportation and imprisonment of thousands of citizens from the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.

These three small nations were swallowed up by Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union in 1940, and then occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941. 

In June of 1941, over 130,000 were deported from Lithuania and sent to work camps in other parts of the Soviet Union. This is where Between Shades of Gray begins. Lina and her family are awakened in the middle of the night and told they have just a few minutes to gather their belongings. Lina and her mother and younger brother stay together, but they are separated from their father. Then they are herded on to trains in crowded, cramped conditions and eventually stop at a work camp. At the work camp they are forced to perform hard labor with little to no food. They live in a shack and are forced to pay rent to the lady who was already living there. 

They are transferred again to a work camp near the Arctic circle where they are forced to build their own huts to live in. Many do not survive in the harsh Arctic night, when the sun doesn't shine for months at a time.

The 'shades of gray' referenced in the title describe the actions of some of the characters in the novel. Some of the characters that we perceive to be horrible people do kind things, and some people that are close do things that are not so charitable.

I appreciated greatly reading about this piece of history I knew little about. Amazingly, some Lithuanians survived for over a decade as prisoners of the Soviet Union, only to return home to find other people had taken their homes and possessions. However, I felt the book was lacking a certain emotional quality. The narrator almost seemed detached as she described the horrifying things that happened to her and that she witnessed. Lina's mother was a bright spot in this book, a woman who was determined to keep her family together.

I recommend this book, even though it will rip your heart out over and over again.


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