On June 14, 1941 Lina Viklas is taken by the Soviet secret police. Along with her mother and her younger brother, Jonas, Lina is forced to leave her home in the middle of the night to board a train to be deported from Lithuania with thousands like her.
As they are taken farther and farther from Lithuania, all hope seems lost. Lina’s father has been separated from the family to be sent to a prison camp. Lina’s dreams of one day attending art school or falling in love are dashed. With nothing but the clothes on their back and a few precious possessions, how can they survive? Will help ever come?
Refusing to lose her sense of self along with everything else, Lina clings to what she does have: her memories and her art. While dreaming of her past, Lina uses her talents to document the atrocities she and the other deportees are forced to endure. Lina may be far from everything she once knew, but she will survive. Any other options are too horrible in Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys.
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Between Shades of Gray is Sepetys’ first novel. It was also a finalist in the 2011 Cybils for Young Adult Fiction which is how I came to read it. Since its publication Between Shades of Gray has garnered a fair amount of accolades and even critical acclaim in the form of a finalist spot for the 2012 William C. Morris YA Debut Award.
Sepetys, herself a daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, brings light to one of history’s darker (not to mention lesser known) moments when the nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia disappeared from maps in 1941 as thousands were deported and sent to labor camps and prisons. These countries did not reappear until 1990.
Because of its content and its deft negotiation of this bleak subject matter, there is no doubt that Between Shades of Gray is an important, valuable book. It will undoubtedly be added to many history class curiculums and will raise awareness about Stalin’s cleansing of the Baltic region.
Unfortunately, being an important book does not make Between Shades of Gray a book without its flaws.
Both the story and its narrator, Lina, are difficult to connect with. The story has a linear narrative of Lina’s journey with the other deportees interspersed with flashbacks and memories of Lina’s old life in Lithuania. While the memories illustrate all that Lina has lost, they also appear abruptly and at little to the plot’s forward momentum. The ending is similarly abrupt not only having a a fifty-four year gap between the last chapter and the epilogue but also a gaping hole in terms of what happened to many of the characters.
Although Lina becomes a strong character as the story progresses, she spends much of the novel as a petulant girl who enjoys rash behavior and jumping to conclusions with little to no evidence to support any of her seemingly random assumptions.
So much emphasis is placed on Lina’s art but the book as a whole provides very little payoff in that department. Granted, Between Shades of Gray isn’t that type of book but I can’t help but wish that readers had been able to see Lina’s actual drawings after hearing so much about them.* If any book could have benefited from illustrations to add another dimension to the story, it’s this one.**
Between Shades of Gray is already a beloved book for a lot of readers. It will likely reach many more. The story and the characters are brimming with a potential that, in a lot of ways, was not fully realized. While Sepetys has created a story with many beautiful, compelling, important parts the sum of those parts never quite added up to a flawless read.
*Or at least to see a little more about what happened to some of the drawings Lina sent out into the world.
**Seriously, after you read the book, think about it for a second. How cool would that have been?!
Possible Pairings: The Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece by Edward Dolnick, Alan and Naomi by Myron Levoy, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, Traitor by Amanda McCrina, Tamar by Mal Peet, Maus by Art Spiegelman, Hitler’s Canary by Sandy Toksvig, Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak