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“Doll Bones” by Holly Black

GUEST REVIEW BY HANNAH L.:

The book you recommended to me was a book that seemed really cool for someone who likes creepy books. Holly Black’s Doll Bones is about three 12 year olds who play a never ending story-type game. The dolls are Lady Jayne, William, the mermaids, and the queen. The kids are Zach, Poppy, and Alice. The dolls are all free except the queen. The queen is a china doll. Bone china, in fact. She is worth a lot of money, so Poppy’s mother keeps her locked in a glass cabinet. The main goal of the game is to find a way to unlock and free the queen.

One night, the queen goes to Poppy in a dream. She tells Poppy that she is real. She died when she was a little girl. She tells Poppy that when she died, her father could not take the thought of his daughter in the ground. So, he took her body to the doll factory where he worked and cremated her. He turned her into a doll, with her bones as the doll’s and her hair as the doll’s, too. The queen told Poppy that she needed to be buried in the cemetery where her casket was, just under a willow tree in Ohio. Poppy takes the doll and shows Zach and Alice. In the doll are the girl’s ashes. They set off on the trip, but the queen is still haunting Poppy’s dreams.

I would tell you what happened next, but I got too creeped out, so I put it down. It’s not every day that I put a book down. Anyway, thank you for recommending this book to me.

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Posted by on March 22, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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“Reached” by Ally Condie

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

So I was a big fan of Ally Condie’s debut dystopian romance “Matched” and its action-packed sequel “Crossed.” The Penguin Young Readers group — excellent people, all! — chose to embargo the concluding book, “Reached,” which basically means there were no advanced copies available and I, like the rest of the mortal world, had to wait for its actual publication date. Bah! ;-)

“Reached” was released in early November, and it has been a popular success, appearing on many YA bestseller lists. I was STOKED to read “Reached,” as I hoped it would combine the ethereal writing of “Matched” and the breakneck pace of “Crossed.” Alas, while “Reached” is by no means a failure, it is underwhelming and flat. I’m so sorry to write these words, but, for me, “Reached” was plodding and uneventful. I wanted it to be so much more.

SPOILER SPACE, y’all, because that’s how we roll here …

Ok, read on at your own risk, because I need to reveal some details to properly review this novel. As “Reached” begins, Xander is an Official with the Society (but secretly working for the Rising), while Ky is flying directly for the Pilot and Cassia is back sorting for the Society, waiting for the Rising to contact her, and conducting back alley trades with the Archivists. Each of the three main characters narrates his or her own story, so we get lots of insight and various perspectives on the action. The use of multiple narrators is surprisingly effective. The great revelation of “Reached” — maybe the only real revelation of “Reached”?! — lies in the fact that Xander is a remarkably complex, deeply wounded, deeply obligated man, which we may not have discovered without his individual narration.

As it turns out, the Rising has unleashed the Plague on the Cities and Boroughs of the Society. Via some seriously convoluted logic, the Pilot believes that spreading the deadly virus will break the Society’s hold on the population, as the Rising members — all of whom are immunized — will sweep in and provide the cure to a grateful nation. Um, ok, I guess. At first, the Pilot’s plan seems dope, as Society falls with barely a whisper. (I honestly thought of those last lines from TS Eliot’s “Hollow Men,” that “this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.”) But then the Plague mutates — and here we are subjected to some incredibly tedious virology discussion — and forms a new version of the virus that not only makes victims still, it actively kills them, regardless of cure or treatment. Even worse for the Rising? The immunization it provided its own members is no protection against the mutation. Only those with a special mark on their necks, who had previously been exposed and survived, are immune, and that’s a very small percentage of the populace (but, of course, it includes Xander and Cassia).

Much of the “action” — and I use that term loosely, because very little in the way of plot occurs — involves the three teens finally joining forces in an outer mountainous community (Endstone, one of the so-called stone villages) to find a cure for the mutation. Leaving aside the highly dubious prospect that the fate of Society would rest with a bunch of teenagers, even this mess is sort of blah. There’s a rad old Society exile named Oker, who is leading the team of scientists, and we briefly — and I mean briefly — see our old pals Eli and Hunter, but mostly it’s Xander, Cassia, and Ky in a race against time. You’d think this might be a compelling setup, but it’s so hollow and dull that I found myself barely caring. Ky quickly falls ill, and there is some small bit of sabotage and danger, but mostly we’re treated to mundane passages about working, sorting, measuring, working, etc. Eh.

What’s so unfortunate is that true moments of beauty and lyricism exist throughout the story, along with some lovely ideas about the relationship between art and community. Author Condie’s descriptions are as lush as ever; nature bursts with colors, scents, and textures, all gorgeously rendered. Cassia creates a gallery on Camas, in which ordinary people — so long deprived of freedom of expression — share sculptures, poems, pictures, and even songs. The vibrancy of this community, and the joyous celebration involved by those participating in it, are so touchingly real. Even Cassia’s growing embrace of poetry remains fresh and alive. We feel the seductive pull of poetry, of words and their purest expression.

Sadly, though, these beautiful passages and scenes only serve to underscore the slow, almost methodical nature of the rest of the story. The search for a new cure meanders, while the expected drama — deaths, love affairs — is muted, often occurring “offscreen.” How are we to react to a death that we don’t even witness? Full props to Condie for her willingness to off major characters, but I so wish that when those lives ended, we readers were allowed more than a passing glance. Moreover, the resolution to the trilogy’s core love triangle is so telegraphed and so devoid of emotion that I had to go back several times and make sure I wasn’t just glossing over some hidden details. I wasn’t. It really was that empty. If not for the development of Xander’s character and the exploration of how his whole life centers on the loneliness of duty, I may well have given up before the novel’s end.

Fans of the first two books in the “Matched” trilogy will undoubtedly rush out and read “Reached,” and I’m certainly not one to dissuade them. Some sections of “Reached” are as achingly lovely as ever, and following Xander’s character is rewarding in its own way. But the larger plot — or lack thereof — and an overall sense of inertia really weigh “Reached” down. Like its predecessors, this one is good for older middle schoolers and up. Who knows, maybe you’ll enjoy it more than I did. I sure hope so!

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Posted by on December 27, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

I rarely review books written for the adult market, but I must make an exception for debut author Kevin Powers’ exceptional new Iraq War novel, “The Yellow Birds.” This is a devastating novel about the effects of war, a topic, sadly, that remains ever relevant. Our local high school students read Ernest Hemingway’s WWI novel “A Farewell to Arms” and Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War short story collection, “The Things They Carried.” “The Yellow Birds” is at least as relevant, at least as gut wrenching, and certainly as timely as those now-classic novels. When our nation’s wars are primarily being fought by teenagers and those in their early 20s, high school students should damn near be required to read a book like “The Yellow Birds.” In my humble opinion, anyway.

Private John “Bart” Bartle, a 21 year old native of Richmond, Virginia, has been deployed to Al Tafar in the Nineveh Province of Iraq in the fall of 2004. This is a volatile region, with streets taken and surrendered in brutal fashion, with random violence, mortar attacks, gunfire, and, everywhere, without end, death. The action flashes back and forth to Bart’s pre-war training in Fort Dix, his drunken despair at a German bar / brothel with the heroic and deeply flawed Sergeant Sterling, and Bart’s lonely disconnection and unraveling at home in Virginia. We know early on that Bart’s closest friend, 18 year old private Daniel “Murph” Murphy, is dead. We slowly discover what happened and how Bart failed to fulfill a spontaneous promise to deliver Murph home safely. What we see clearly, even without knowing the details of Murph’s death, is Bart’s pain, his jagged grief at his perceived cowardice, the disorientation of living in a constant war and adjusting afterward, and the soul-crushing burden that witnessing, causing, and ignoring so much death creates.

There are many scenes that depict the terror and chaos of war: an interpreter is shot on a rooftop in mid-sentence; a disemboweled boy dies in agony after a gunfight in an orchard; a human bomb explodes, raining human matter down on a bridge; and a young girl feebly tries to drag an old woman’s dead body across a dirt road. There is dust and blood and all manner of sickening odors and deafening sounds. Everywhere. All the time. Powers, a veteran himself, does an astounding job of conveying how war floods the senses, overtakes the brain, and strangles even basic human compassion.

There is a stark grace in Powers’ word choice and descriptions. He mainly writes in spare, evocative language. This quiet lyricism is contrasted with long, almost run-on passages as Bart delves into his inner turmoil. In these instances, we are caught in a swirling midst of Bart’s cycling thoughts and his version of psychic tail chasing. These philosophical ramblings — Bart’s breakneck effort to reason out a meaning in memory, guilt, death, and forgiveness — are extraordinary. I had to stop and re-read so many passages in an attempt to distill their larger meaning, digest their emotional weight, and savor the beauty of the words used to describe such ugliness and pain. These are two of my favorite sections, in which an agonizingly depressed Bart has returned to Richmond and is completely broken:

You want to fall, that’s all. You think it can’t go on like that. It’s as if your life is a perch on the edge of a cliff and going forward seems impossible, not for a lack of will, but a lack of space. The possibility of another day stands in defiance of the laws of physics. And you can’t go back. So you want to fall, let go, give up, but you can’t. And every breath you take reminds you of that fact. So it goes …

Or should I have said that I wanted to die, not in the sense of wanting to throw myself off of that train bridge over there, but more like wanting to be asleep forever because there isn’t any making up for killing women or even watching women get killed, or for that matter killing men and shooting them in the back and shooting them more times than necessary to actually kill them and it was like just trying to kill everything you saw sometimes because it felt like there was acid seeping down into your soul and then your soul is gone and knowing from being taught your whole life that there is no making up for what you are doing, you’re taught that your whole life, but then even your mother is so happy and proud because you lined up your sight posts and made people crumple and they were not getting up ever and yeah they might have been trying to kill you too, so you say, What are you gonna do?, but really it doesn’t matter because by the end you failed at the one good thing you could have done, the one person you promised would live is dead …

Powerful stuff. For all barbarity of war and the awful claustrophobia of alcoholism and post traumatic stress disorder, Bart achieves a measure of peace by novel’s end, giving “The Yellow Birds” a kind of quiet victory in simply showing the soul’s ability to survive. Some years later, alone in a mountain cabin, Bart is able to, as he says, become ordinary again. “There are days ahead when I won’t think of him or Sterling or the war.” Yes, that’s a small triumph, but it is still a hopeful note in a novel about how violence ravages its victims, perpetrators, and our larger society.

I think high school students, or those young people with the maturity to handle some incredibly jarring — but never gratuitous — imagery and language, should read, analyze, and discuss “The Yellow Birds.” In a mere 226 pages, Kevin Powers has created what is destined to become a masterpiece of modern fiction. Please read this National Book Award-nominated novel now. You will never forget it. And keep this stunning book in mind the next time some politician somewhere argues for the deployment of US troops.

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Posted by on October 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“Every Day” by David Levithan

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

David Levithan is an amazing, amazing writer who needs no accolades from me. Nevertheless, I’m giving them to him. ;-) Levithan is the author of one of my all-time favorite YA novels, the incandescent “Boy Meets Boy,” and co-author of books you, dear reader, and I absolutely adore, like “Will Grayson, Will Grayson,” “Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares,” and “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.”

“Every Day” is Levithan’s latest book, and the concept is blow-your-mind unique: A is a genderless entity, a being or soul, who inhabits a different 16 year old body each day. Boy, girl, black, white, Asian, straight, gay, transgendered, fat, slim, popular, suicidal … you name it, A has been that person for one day. A’s host remembers nothing of the “lost” day, apparently because A is able to implant alternate memories. A can access only internal facts about the host — locker combinations, sibling names, etc. — not emotional connections. A is, however, subject to the biological or chemical constraints of the host body and any corresponding emotional conditions caused by those constraints. (There is an absolutely harrowing day when A, in an addict’s body, uses every bit of mental energy to combat nearly overpowering drug cravings; similarly, A’s one day as a clinically depressed girl is devastating.)

When we meet A, A is in the body of Justin, a typical brooding high school guy with a chip on his shoulder and a pretty girlfriend. That girlfriend is the vulnerable, often heartbroken Rhiannon, who basically stays with Justin because (a) she thinks he’ll become a better version of himself, and (b) she’s afraid to be alone. Lo and behold, when A is in Justin’s body, Justin is, indeed, a better version of himself. A ignores the “rules” and has Justin do some un-Justin-like things, like ditching school and taking Rhiannon to the beach. Even worse (or better?), A-as-Justin is suddenly more caring, attentive, and open, leading the beaten-down Rhiannon to emerge more fully from her protective shell. In one epic day, Rhiannon falls in love with “Justin” again, while A, for the first time in A’s life, falls in love, too.

Except, of course, that epic day has to end. When A next lands in the body of Nathan, an overachieving, straight-laced guy, he drives for hours and crashes a party attended by Rhiannon. “Nathan,” posing as a gay, non-romantic interest, dances the night away with Rhiannon and later contacts her by email. (A keeps a personal email account.) Unfortunately, A has to keep Nathan out late for the party — the switch to the next host always occurs at midnight, regardless — meaning that Nathan wakes up on the side of the road with no memory of how he got there. When Nathan’s story of demonic possession goes viral — and when Nathan himself starts emailing A demanding answers — A’s anonymity and very existence become threatened. Still, being smitten and nursing the hope of finally living a regular life, A risks all and reveals all to Rhiannon. She reluctantly agrees to keep meeting A, in all A’s different bodies, while she sorts out her feelings.

“Every Day” is so thought provoking and raises such intriguing questions about personhood and identity and love, that for these reasons alone — not to mention the beautiful writing and amazingly complex one-day characterizations — it’s a winner. Do we really love the person inside, or is the exterior an inevitable factor? A slowly realizes that it’s easier for Rhiannon to connect with him when A is inhabiting a hot guy than when A is morbidly obese or female. A is such a remarkable character, mature beyond A’s earthly years, yet still a teenager who can be rash and impulsive. But A is different in one crucial way. Unlike the rest of us, A sees no gender or sexual orientation. A exists as a pure identity. An essence. A being. Seeing how this all plays out is illuminating and heartbreaking and kind of beautiful. Huge kudos to David Levithan for pulling off the logistics of the hosting so smoothly and for making the romance between A and Rhiannon so incredibly ill fated (and, thus, so incredibly intriguing).

[Total side note, but as I read “Every Day,” I thought of Against Me! lead singer Laura Jane Grace. Laura Jane was born as Tom Gabel, but she knew from a very young age that she was a woman. Tom married Heather Gabel a few years ago, and together they had a daughter. Tom struggled all this time with gender dysphoria, the technical term for feeling like your external anatomy and the sex roles assigned to it don’t line up with your internal gender identity. In May of 2012, Tom came out publicly as transitioning to a woman, Laura Jane, despite the prejudices of some in the punk and wider communities. Laura Jane is an absolute inspiration of being true to who you are. And you know what’s cool? Heather has stayed with Laura Jane, saying that she fell in love with the person who is Laura Jane, not the external male who was Tom. Awesome. A would be proud.]

There are some truly genius touches here — A inhabits twins on back-to-back days, allowing A to see the after effects on the host — as well as so many captivating insights into the relationships between teens and their peers, parents, and siblings. I highly recommend “Every Day” to older middle and high school readers. It’s really like nothing else I’ve ever read, and a full week after finishing it, I still find myself thinking about A. Which, sign of a great book, y’all. Please check out “Every Day” and see what you think!

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Posted by on October 3, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Truth About Forever” by Sarah Dessen

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

My boundless love for Sarah Dessen … well, it knows no bounds. ;-) Sarah is my absolute go-to author for pitch perfect depictions of girl friendship, first love, and magical summers. Check out the Sarah Dessen tag below, because I’m a fangirl, y’all, and have read, cherished, and reviewed quite a few of her books. I mentioned in my previous entry that I was beaching it recently, and beach reading basically REQUIRES a healthy dose of Sarah Dessen. Hence, me, sand, the waves, an umbrella (I’m slightly vampiric!), and Sarah’s 2004 gem, “The Truth About Forever.” What a perfect combination.

Teen girl Macy recently (and quite unexpectedly) lost her dad to a fatal heart attack. Older sister Caroline is married and out of the house, mom is an uptight, driven mess, and boyfriend Jason is rigidly focused on his academic future. When Jason heads off to “brain camp” for the summer, Macy finds herself alone with a stack of SAT textbooks and a mind numblingly boring gig at her local library’s reference desk. [Which, no comment!] Macy stumbles upon Wish, a local catering company, at one of her mom’s events. The Wish folks, led by the pregnant and perpetually frazzled mother hen Delia, are a fun, quirky family. Their obvious warmth and affection for each other — as well as their ability to get the job done, even when things inevitably go awry — immediately appeals to Macy. On impulse, she joins the crew and starts working events, despite her mother’s obvious disapproval.

So, yeah, there’s a GUY on the Wish crew. Duh. His name is Wes, and he’s a reformed bad boy who makes these epic angel and heart-in-hand sculptures out of wire, sea glass, and other scavenged materials. He’s deep and dreamy, and you will love him instantly. Trust me. Wes and Macy somehow jump into a continuous game of Truth or Dare, played out over many long nights, in which each slowly reveals details about their lives, hopes, and issues. Basically, they fall for each other without ever really admitting it to themselves. You’ll dig it. Again, trust me! Plus, he creates some art for her. Swoon.

There are, of course, complications. Macy’s mom isn’t too keen on the Wish folks, who also include sci fi nerd (and Wes’ younger brother) Bert; the scarred but completely adorable Kristy; and the mostly monosyllabic Monica. Mom, who buries her grief in a frenzied workload, eventually isolates Macy from the crew, which seemed a bit unrealistic to me. Macy gave up her entire life following her dad’s death, including treasured friendships, teenage silliness, and her most beloved activity, running. You’d think mom would like to see a little sparkle back in her daughter’s life.

Complications also arise between Wes and Macy, as each remains on guard despite their attraction. When Macy spots Wes at a late night hangout with an old flame, she cuts him off and retreats back into her old, lonely ways. But try as she might, now that Macy has rediscovered life, she can’t quite cram herself back into her spare, constricted little world. After a long summer of talks, parties, laughs, and tears, Macy is left with a tough decision: continue to play it safe with Jason and the SATs, or move forward, dive in, and take all the pain that comes with being truly alive.

Sarah is an incredibly beautiful writer, and “The Truth About Forever” is chock full of her usual lyrical passages, quietly heartfelt moments, and loving characterizations. She perfectly captures the heady combination of sky-high joy and crushing fear that accompany falling in love, making us understand exactly why Macy runs from Wes. Sarah slowly, believably pulls Macy along on her journey, nailing that end of the movie, they finally get together moment. It’s so understated and charming that you get the payoff without feeling cheap about it. You know what I mean! Throw in empowering girl friendships and some exquisitely rendered mother-daughter scenes at novel’s end, and “The Truth About Forever” is an absolute winner. Summer or not, you older middle school (and up!) readers will adore this one. In case you’re like me and somehow overlooked “The Truth About Forever,” please get on that now asap. Even though summer is over, there is always a place for a summer book. Happy reading!

PS ~ Cute fan-created book trailer below. Check it out!

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Posted by on September 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Pact” by Jodi Picoult

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

So I was on vacation at my very favorite beach in the entire world, sitting under an umbrella, listening to the sounds of the waves … and, duh, obviously reading a book. I am a librarian, after all! I read an absolutely fabulous new novel, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?,” that is clever, insightful, quirky, and weirdly heartwarming. Check it out! Alas, I do not review it here, because it is an adult novel with little YA crossover. [But the narrator is an eighth grader AND I LOVED IT. Hee. That is all.]

Luckily — or unluckily! — for you good people, I also read Jodi Picoult’s 1998 teen-themed novel “The Pact,” and that, my friends, I am all over in the review department. It’s the story of lifelong friends, teenagers, who become a couple because of love, remain a couple because of expectations, and ultimately confront a promise of mutual suicide. Yeah, that’s heavy stuff, and Picoult, for all her many literary talents, does tend to dip into the old melodrama at times. But, overall, “The Pact” is a gripping novel that deftly explores the complex web of family, friendship, love, hatred, and grief. If it’s a little soapy at times, eh, so be it, because when it’s good, it’s seriously, ridiculously good.

Chris Harte and Emily Gold literally grew up together, as we discover in a series of extended flashbacks. Their moms, Gus Harte and Melanie Gold, are best friends and next-door neighbors who are both pregnant at the same time in 1979. [Remember, folks, this book is a little old, but other than a few jarring technological details — Gus has a beeper! — it’s not at all outdated thematically.] While Chris and Emily begin life as instant friends and constant companions, they eventually fall in, out, and sort of back in love again. I know “The Pact” is a book about suicide — and I’ll get to that issue, I promise! — but I felt that aspect of Chris and Emily’s relationship, that pressure to be something together at almost all costs, was so strikingly real. Emily’s crushing disappointment in not living up to that long-ordained love, in loving Chris but not LOVING him, sends her to a dark place. That pain, coupled with buried sexual abuse, an unexpected occurrence, and a crushing bout of prolonged depression, leads her to contemplate not just her own suicide, but Chris’ as well. Indeed, as the book opens, Emily tells Chris, “I love you,” which is followed by this line:

And then there was a shot.

So the kicker here — and there’s really no way to avoid spoiling it, because it happens at jump — is that following the night of the pact, Chris remains very much alive. While he’s suffering from a gaping but hardly life-threatening head wound in the ER, Emily arrives DOA. As the respective families (and friendships) just about disintegrate from pain, rage, and confusion, we start to learn more about Chris, the survivor at the center of this storm. Chris was the stalwart one, the reliable, smart, kind boy who excelled at two things: swimming and loving Emily. When Chris is arrested for Emily’s murder, it’s not too hard for us to believe that while he may not have killed her out of malice, he clearly could have done so from a toxic mix of adoration and perceived loyalty. Chris’ arrest further rips apart his family and the Golds, while also strangely bringing Chris and his distant, repressed father closer together.

Chris is imprisoned for months while awaiting trial. Picoult flashes back and forth from his prison life, filling in more and more details of Emily’s deepening pain and Chris’ ceaseless devotion. While the jail scenes can play out as a bit over the top, Chris’ pervading sense of fear and heartache is nicely conveyed, and the legal wranglings are easily comprehended. We’re ultimately set up for a splashy trial, complete with surprise witnesses and “shocking” testimony. While perceptive readers will likely view Chris’ confession as telegraphed, the details themselves — and his palpable shame and guilt — trump any obviousness. I saw much of this coming and was still utterly shocked by the depth of Chris’ misguided loyalty and sacrifice.

One of our neighboring school districts requires high school students to read “The Pact” over the summer, and I can see why. From a purely cautionary standpoint, it provides lots of useful information about the warning sides of suicide, and it depicts, with incredible emotion, the devastation left behind in the wake of such a death. Chris and Emily’s evolving relationship — complete with all its joys and disappointments — is also incredibly authentic and will likely resonate with many teens. Perhaps best of all, this book is a page turner, y’all. Beach or no beach, I would’ve devoured it in a day. It truly is that engaging.

“The Pact” is out there, so please give it a read if it now seems interesting. I should note that this one is definitely a high school book, as it contains sexuality, language, drinking, etc. If you really like “The Pact,” the Lifetime network created a movie version a few years back. Check out the trailer below. Happy reading! Wouldn’t you like to be back at the beach right about now? Sigh.

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Posted by on September 19, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“Between Shades of Gray” by Ruta Sepetys

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”
~ Albert Camus

Ruta Sepetys’ “Between Shades of Gray” is one of the most beautiful, evocative pieces of historical fiction I’ve ever encountered, teen or otherwise. It sheds much needed light on a largely hidden moment in history, when Soviet Premier Josef Stalin deported and imprisoned thousands of political prisoners from the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These innocent people — men, women, and children — were ripped from their lives, transported like cattle in filthy conditions, only to be beaten, starved, and worked to death at prison camps in remote areas of Siberia. Their only crime? Being deemed a danger to the repressive Soviet regime that had annexed their Baltic nations. Their real crime? Nothing other than being professors, teachers, doctors, army officers, and librarians.

We meet 15 year old Lina on the night in June of 1941 when Soviet NKVD (secret police) officers storm her house in Lithuania, taking her, her mother Elena, and her 10 year old brother Jonas into custody. (Lina’s papa has already disappeared.) Lina’s family has all of 20 minutes to gather their belongings before being herded onto a truck and, eventually, a train, bound for parts unknown. Mind you, they have done nothing wrong. The train car is a true horror: people are packed in with no room for movement and no bathroom facilities other than a hole in the corner of the car. Ona, a woman who has recently given birth, is left bleeding on a plank in the car, her infant daughter dying slowly from starvation. Author Sepetys captures the fear, humiliation, and anger that Lina and her fellow travelers feel, this utterly awful sense of shame and bone-chilling terror at what will happen next.

Eventually, over the course of six weeks, the Lithuanian prisoners make their way to Altai Province, in the southern portion of Siberia. Lina’s family, thin and weak, is thrown into a hut with a brute of a local woman, Ulyushka. Everyone at the Altai camp is forced to work at least 12 hours a day to earn one meager bread ration, which is barely enough to keep a person alive. Lina and Elena are eventually assigned to farm beets and potatoes, while Jonas works with Siberian women making shoes. The mother of the lone teen boy on the trip, Andrius Arvydas (his mother bribed an NKVD guard to have him deemed feeble), is forced into prostitution at the NKVD officers’ barracks. Many nights, the Lithuanians are roused from their sleep at gunpoint and threatened by the sadistic Commander Komorov to sign a “confession” condemning them to 25 years of hard labor. It is a lonely, miserable existence, filled with pain, hunger, and far too much sickness and death.

Lina’s escape from this wretched life lies in her sketches — of Lithuania, Jonas, Mrs. Arvydas, Andrius, her missing papa — and memories of a better life in Lithuania. Lina could be killed for her “treasonous” sketches, which she hides in the lining of her suitcase, but they are a lifeline for her. Many references are made throughout the novel to the works of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, whose depictions of raw emotional pain are models for Lina’s work. [Click here to see an image of Munch’s most iconic work, The Scream.] Lina is one brave and talented girl.

After nearly a year in Altai, Lina and her family, along with hundreds of Lithuanian and other Baltic peoples, are ferried by train, truck, and ship to Trofimovsk, an absolutely desolate land that lies above the Arctic Circle. Trofimovsk makes Altai seem like a luxury resort. The polar night (continuous darkness) lasts for months on end; dangerously frigid temperatures and continuous blizzards threaten the group’s very survival; starvation, typhus, dysentery, and scurvy are constant killers; and the prisoners’ living conditions — crude, self-built mud huts in a polar region — are subhuman. Without the late appearance of Dr. Samodurov (a real figure, as described here), all the prisoners would have perished during that first miserable winter.

In discussion materials and an author note afterward, Sepetys describes “Between Shades of Gray” as, ultimately, a love story. The Baltic people survived by using love as their sustaining force. I agree. Despite its devastating subject matter, this novel is warm, uplifting, and hopeful. Lina’s love for Elena and Jonas, for her imprisoned father and lost homeland, and, finally, for the strong, kind Andrius, buoys what otherwise may have been a bleak and depressing tale. There is so much life and love in these pages, so much hope and triumph, that it goes a long way in easing some of the pain. The prisoners continue to maintain their national and familial pride — Lina creates patriotic artwork, the Lithuanians celebrate their holidays in the depths of work camp blight, and the homesick and heartbroken share cherished family photographs that were hastily grabbed after arrests — which is beautiful and inspiring. Even small kindnesses, like the Siberian co-worker who saves Jonas from the ravages of scurvy, add to the impression that although we have seen the worst of humanity, the best of humanity still quietly endures. So, yes, love IS the central theme here. And what a necessary message that is for young people to receive.

“Between Shades of Gray” also impressively tempers even its most beastly characters, including some of the heartless NKVD officers, the stoic native Altains, and the “bald man,” an embittered Lithuanian prisoner who constantly criticizes his fellow detainees. Sepetys uses one NKVD officer, the young Nikolai Kretzky, most dramatically to show the withering effect of these atrocities on a basically decent Russian who is “just following orders.” The real villain here, the one never actually seen, is Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, who masterminded the deaths of MILLIONS of innocents. As a stand in, we get all the people who spared themselves but made that devastation possible — Lithuanians who gave information, Soviets who abided by a culture of fear and secrecy, and NKVD officers who channeled their own personal failings into either wholesale prisoner abuse or, at the very least, willful ignorance of the horrors surrounding them.

I absolutely recommend “Between Shades of Gray” to students in upper middle school and higher. This is a difficult book, and I don’t mean to minimize that in any way. There is violence, death, and depravity, but much of it is handled “off screen” and little of it is overwhelming in detail or presentation. As mentioned above, the sum effect of this novel, the feeling you are left with at the end, is one of joy and promise. Please, give “Between Shades of Gray” a try. You will be glad you did.

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Posted by on August 23, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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