Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys: A Book Review

Don’t freak, dear reader! This has nothing to do with Fifty Shades of Gray!

I’ve often wondered why World War II has become such a popular historical fiction topic in recent years, and I’ve come to only one sensible conclusion. It is simply that the men and women who lived through it are dying, slowly but surely. Of course, death is part of life and will come to all of us, but it is also true that we lose touch with firsthand accounts of the past when our elderly pass on. If there is one important lesson I learned from my own grandparents, it’s the importance of storytelling, of making sure future generations don’t forget the joys and struggles of those who came before them. In a world that seems so intent on living only for things that are trendy, loud, and digitized, a book like Between Shades of Gray is a severely needed reality check.

The central figure of this compelling YA novel is Lina, a 16-year-old Lithuanian girl who becomes swept up in the torrent of atrocities set in motion by the occupation of Stalin’s troops across Eastern Europe. Lina has big dreams to become an artist and study at the university in the capital of Vilnius. Her grand plans, however, vanish like smoke as her family is ripped from their home and stuffed into a train car. This starts a decade-long journey across Asia and into the wasteland of Siberia. Lina processes the struggles and atrocities she experiences by drawing what she observes and in the way she feels it. She admires the work of Edvard Munch, an artist who is known today for his twisted and and warped way of portraying his subjects. This style is what influences her depiction of people and events in her work, and she becomes fueled by a desire to make sure that future generations know and begin to understand what the Lithuanian people went through. In a very short amount of time, her sense of girlhood completely dies as she learns about the various ways in which humanity processes hardship and suffering. This inevitably leads to tough lessons in sacrifice.

One of the things I felt was most compelling about this novel was the fact that it addressed a facet of WWII of which I was completely ignorant. Stalin and his men wanted to be absolutely sure that there was no information, no explanation, and above all, no evidence for the other nations of the world that would clue them in to what was happening to the Eastern European countries. This land-grab was Stalin’s Communist edition of the domination that Hitler tried to accomplish with his Third Reich. And Stalin just loved forced labor…. Perhaps even more surprising is that the Lithuanian people, among other countries, were under the yoke of a forced silence for years after their return from their labor sentences (if they were so lucky)! Predictably, Stalin denied these people the freedom of expression needed to process their experiences and grieve for loved ones and lost dreams. I can’t even begin to fathom the added pain of keeping one’s emotions on lock-down after such suffering! It reminds me of what Maya Angelou once said: “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you.”

This kind of political turmoil is always dangerous for those who are creative thinkers and dare to hold their own opinions. Artists (like Lina), teachers, professors, activists, writers, religious people and the clergy, and people who are deemed “too wealthy and prosperous” are always the first targets of a regime that wants total control over people’s minds and actions. Lina’s experiences are sprinkled with flashbacks of her father meeting with other men in the neighborhood, discussing ways of resisting the encroaching invasion. She is upbraided severely by her father for drawing satirical caricatures of Stalin, and later realizes that such harsh rebukes were warnings of love and fear. Throughout the book, there are many such scenes that drive home the point that art has immense power to convey the truth in a personal way, a way that lays bare one’s soul.

Sepetys is a master of detail in emotional and sensory ways. Her gift for using metaphors to describe human pain and the physical details that surround her characters are like electric shocks. I found them so incredibly powerful! The book has a lot of chapters, but they’re short, so it was really easy to speed through this book. The chapters pack a powerful punch but are also doled out in digestible amounts, which I thought was a genius way to tackle such heavy subject matter.

There are many details and plot points I left out of this review, but I think that to grasp the full emotional impact of this novel, there’s got to be some element of blindness in the reader. This is not a book to go into with pre-conceived notions, although that would be hard to do anyway, given the obscure historical angle. I’ll conclude by repeating that this novel is a much-needed wake-up call in a world where people are blind to the wrong things. Lina’s art helps her see and process the world and her experiences, and Between Shades of Gray is absolutely a work of art that can help each of us to understand the past more clearly, appreciate the present more gratefully, and plan our futures more intentionally. History is the dance of human lives. Events (and more importantly, people) are rarely black and white. There are many shades of gray in them, and life is all about learning the differences between day and night, light and shadow, and the beauty that can be found where the lines blur.

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