Thursday, September 15, 2011

YA BOOK REVIEW: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

I just finished a wonderful YA historical, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. It looks at WWII from an entirely different angle, one I knew almost nothing about. Certainly I hadn’t understood the depth and breadth of the cruelty attending the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. In an effort to suppress supposed anti-Soviet activity, anyone suspected of harboring anti-Soviet sentiment (teachers, lawyers, doctors, writers, artists, librarians, military men, businessmen, etc.) were placed on a list to be deported. Deportations began in the summer of 1941. Men, women, and children were shipped to Siberia under conditions so barbaric that the majority did not survive.

Between Shades of Gray is the story of Lina, a 15-year-old Lithuanian girl with a promising future as an artist. Except that her father is a university professor who has helped a relative escape from Lithuania. Her parents are secretly trying to arrange for their family to flee also, but before they are able, the NKVD knocks on (nearly breaks down) their door. Lina is at home with her mother and her 10-year-old brother Jonas. They don’t know what has become of their father. They are marched off to the train station, allowed only a suitcase each and the clothes on their backs. They spend six weeks crammed into a cattle car with a group of other deportees, strangers, with whom they forge an uneasy bond. (Their car is one of many in a whole train. They pass other trains along the way. Many deportees die of starvation or sickness during the journey. Some are killed by the NKVD. The bodies are simply tossed aside. The purpose of the journey is in part transportation and part mass extermination.)

Lina’s mother is a generous, strong, woman who doesn’t judge others– she looks for the good. Her kindness is an inspiration to those around her. She moves forward out of the need to keep her family together and because of she believes she will one day be reunited with her husband.

Lina has more trouble seeing the good in people. She pours out her emotions in her art – art that she has to hide because it depicts the truth of the atrocities the Soviets are committing.

Within their tiny community is a boy about Lina’s age, Andrius. He, too, has lost his father. Andrius is drawn to Lina. Their growing (and blossoming) friendship is one ray of hope that Lina clings to, giving her strength and purpose to survive.

The story is intricately, painfully detailed. It’s a compelling read – even though I knew that reading more was just going to make me feel worse, I couldn’t stop. I had to keep going until something good happened. There were tiny nuggets of kindness and friendship among the suffering that give you hope for humanity. But overall it paints a pretty bleak picture.

This is a fascinating story and an important one. This history is real and shouldn’t be forgotten.

This is another book that I read for the YA historical fiction challenge. It was an emotionally powerful read and I learned some important historical facts. Highly recommended!