Thursday, April 07, 2011

REVIEW: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

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.

Wow. Let me just take a moment to catch my breath after reading this amazing book. I knew that Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys would be sad. I knew that contained in its pages would be difficult subject matter. But really, I had no idea. The extent of the cruelty and horrific living and working conditions that these people suffered through brings tears to my eyes just remembering the details. That Lina's story is based on actual events makes this book that much more important and powerful. (How had I not heard of these events before now?) I really don't think I have the words in me to describe how I felt reading this book, the way that I feel knowing Lina's story. Sometimes there just aren't any words. But as painful and heartbreaking as it was reading of the experiences of the people in this book, it was also ultimately hopeful and uplifting.

Lina is your typical 15 year old. She lives in Lithuania with her parents and her little brother. She's applied to an arts school, she enjoys spending time with her cousin and flirting with boys. But the year is 1941 and it's a difficult time. On one side, Hitler is in Europe trying to conquer other countries, on the other Stalin is trying to take over Eastern Europe. In the dead of night, Lina's family is round up by Soviet soldiers and shipped off to a work camp and forced on a treacherous journey into Siberia where many will die. Their crime? As a university professor, Lina's father is thought to be anti-Soviet. This condemns the entire family to suffering.

What follows is an absolute horrific story of Lina, her family and those that she comes to know on their long trek from Lithuania into Siberia to a work camp. The terrible and unsanitary living conditions, the long, hard hours labouring away, the ways in which the Soviets strip so many people of their dignity and break their spirits. In so many ways this story could have led down a path of being overly sentimental or manipulative and it wasn't. It doesn't over-dramatise the harshness or the reality of the situation, but presents it as it is. Seeing it through Lina's eyes and being shown the details that she witnesses, the brief glimpses of her family and friends as they struggle through this made this story very personal and really connects the reader on a very deep level.

And together with the absolutely harrowing experiences, we also see strong family connections, we see firm bonds between people, we see friendship and the beginning stages of love. And beyond that, there's hope. Through Lina's art and through the messages and letters she sends to those outside of her workcamp, Lina always believes that there will be something more than this.

One of my favourite characters is Lina's mother who manages to hold on to high sense of morality, her manners and her kindness throughout the entire novel. And she does her absolute best to make sure that Lina and her brother do the same. I love that she makes sure that her humanity remains intact no matter what the Soviets do to her and for her strength and courage, she continually brought tears to my eyes.

The entire book did. This is such a powerful and important novel, one that will remain with me for a very long time to come. Highly recommended.


  1. I didn't know this was based on true events. That just makes it even more appealing.

  2. Wow this sounds like an amazing book. I studied this part of history when I did my GCSEs, but other than knowing it happened we didn't cover it in much more detail.

  3. Between Shades of Gray sounds so amazing! I must add this one to my wishlist :D

  4. This books sounds so good from everyone who has read it but it's really not my thing and I don't know if I would actually read it or it would sit there unread for months!
    I do think what I may have to do is buy my sister it though cos I know she'd love it!

  5. Fab review, I'm not quite sure if it's the kind of book for me but with a highly recommended recommendation I might be tempted.

  6. Viv - I watched a video clip of the author talking about her family who went through these experiences and who a lot of the story is based on and I knew I could't pass by this book.

    Jenni - It IS amazing. I'd never heard anything at all about this event in history :(

    TSB - You really should. It's a wonderful book. Heartbreaking but uplifting.

    Raimy - That's a great idea! :)

    Kirsty - Thank you!

    Jesse - Maybe now isn't the right time, but maybe you'll see it on the shelf somewhere in the future and read it :)

  7. I am looking foward to read this book. There is a documentary film "Red terror on the amber coast"(full movie on youtube) is about those deportations from baltic states, partisans and survivors stories.It is really disturbing movie.

  8. Jovita - It *sounds* quite disturbing, but I would definitely like to learn more about what happened. Thank you for your comment.


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