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.