Book Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray
by Ruta Sepetys
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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.