Book Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray
by Ruta Sepetys
Goodreads | Amazon | Audible
Series: Sort of? Salt to the Sea has a character who is mentioned in this book.
Published: March 22nd 2011
Rating: My heart hurts.

Between Shades of Gray is about fifteen-year-old Lina,  Lithuanian girl in 1941 who, along with her family and thousands of others, has been deported to a Siberian prison camp. I am very interested in the Cold War and Soviet history and was very excited about the concept of this novel. It isn't a topic that is explored very much and aside from hearing about it when I visited Lithuania and Latvia I would not have to know that it happened. The young adult format was perfect for the story, and the focus on a family instead of an isolated character really worked.

This is an incredibly powerful story and deserved characters that were living and breathing. Lina was likable although her outbursts of anger were somewhat jarring. I needed more internal dialogue from Lina. Ruta Sepetys' books are often about what is happening to characters rather than the characters themselves.  It would be overwhelming and too painful to read about if there wasn't a core of hope and even optimism running through the book.

Between Shades of Gray shows us the particulars of the Lithuanian exile, the horror of the conditions, and the difficulties in learning to survive. We are never fully immersed into Lina's head. She tells us about things that are horrible, and the descriptions are moving but rarely are her feelings and reactions fully examined. Jonas, her mother, father, the Bald Man, the Altaic Woman, Andrius... All of these characters had the potential to be almost painfully real.  There was a slight detachment in the writing that prevented me from getting as close as I wanted to. I also thought that the theme of freedom and truth through art wasn't explored as fully as it should have been. But I also think that that detachment is natural.  Lina would have had to detach herself emotionally in some way to survive. 

Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.

When I first read this book a few years ago, I was somewhat torn about it. I didn't think that the writing stood up to the power of the story. I thought that the constant flashbacks seemed a bit forced. They could have been snapshots of a family making the separations faced that much more poignant. However, my expectations going into this book were ridiculously high, so it would have been almost impossible for a book to match them.  I didn't think that it would stick with me the way I thought this story should. I was very wrong.  It turned into one the top books that I have thought about, discussed, and recommended.  I have pushed it on my mother, students, friends, and sometimes strangers in bookstores. 

This was Ruta Sepetys' first book. While I love it, I think that her later works are even better balanced.  She is an auto-buy author for me as I can always count on her books to show an aspect of the world that I didn't know about.

PS: On a completely superficial note I have the cover with the face on it, and it is beautiful.

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.

Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously--and at great risk--documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father's prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives. Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.

Book Review: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys cover

Salt to the Sea
by Ruta Sepetys
Goodreads | Amazon
Series: kind of a spin off...
Published: February 2nd 2016
Rating: so so so good

Salt to the Sea is a book about a group of refugees fleeing from the Eastern Front away from the Soviet Army. There are four main characters. Florian a Prussian art restoration apprentice who has a secret. Joana, a Lithuanian nursing student who is haunted by past choices. Emilia, a Polish girl who has had everything in her life, ripped away by the war.  And Alfred who is a young German Sailor.  The book consists of alternating first-person chapters.  It is very easy to differentiate who is narrating the story as they all have distinct voices.  Not an easy feat.

I have enjoyed all of Ruta Sepetys' novels.  They are not, however, as intensely character based as I like. Salt to the Sea's plot rushes forward at such a pace that the reader doesn't get a chance to slow down and get to know the characters. The chapters are very short, and I found myself barreling through them to see what would happen. The speed is entirely realistic, but it leads to me loving the book but muddling up the characters. Sepetys takes no time with the frills of description.  It does not matter that you don't know what a WWII era German Sailor's uniform looks like because things are happening. I did do a fair bit of googling while reading this book but I like to know exact details and understand the background from more than just context.  

This is not to say that the book does not show us the human or that it does not have an impact.  It isn't just the obvious parts that can get to but the everyday.  For example, there was a scene with a stuffed rabbit that completely caught me off guard and had me choking up. The book packs an emotional punch, and I found myself crying over it on at least three separate occasions.  More if you count the afterward and acknowledgments.  It is just a case of the plot happening to the characters rather than the characters happening to the plot. Hopefully, that made some sense...

There never seems to be an end to World War II stories.  Whenever you think that you are familiar with almost all of it, a story comes along to show you a narrative about something that you have never even heard about. It is why I am endlessly attracted to books set in this period.  I vaguely knew that there had been refugees fleeing the Soviet Army, but I had never put together the scope of the situation in my head.

I find it fascinating how a book set more than 70 years ago is so topical.  At the moment the refugee crisis in the world is larger than in any other time since the end of WWII.  Salt to the Sea shows us how human each of those numbers is, the pain of not having a home to go back to, and the infinite ways that war can steal everything from you. This book needs to be widely read.  I am going to be sending this book to several people that I know.

From Goodreads:

Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.

Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.

As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.

Yet not all promises can be kept.

Inspired by the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, bestselling and award-winning author Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray) lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II. An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope