Sepetys, Ruta. Between Shades of Gray. Speak, 2011.
In 1940, the Soviet Union began their occupation of Europe’s Baltic States, and under Stalin’s reign, started deporting thousands of citizens of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to remote Russian areas. The NKVD forced them to work for tiny rations; thus, many of these people did not survive.
Between Shades of Gray tells the story of the Vilkas family, who is among a group of people who end up in Trofimovsk at the North Pole. Fourteen-year-old Lina, ten-year-old Jonas, and their mother, Elena, are dragged from their home in the middle of the night and forced onto a train. Unbeknownst to them, their father and has already been sentenced to death and put in prison. On the train, seventeen-year-old Andrius Arvydas, and his mother befriend them. Eventually, Andrius becomes Lina’s love interest.
Parts of the Lithuanian group are sold as slaves, and others, including Lina and her family, work for measly rations on a beet farm. As winter nears, they are shipped via train and barge father north, finally landing at Trofimovsk. There, they must build their own huts from leftover bark, twigs, and moss to avoid freezing to death, while the NKVD keep warm in brick buildings and have plenty to eat. The harsh winter brings many deaths, and it is only through helping each other and the secret kindness of one of the guards that allows Lina and Jonas to survive.
Ruta Sepetys has told a heart-wrenching tale of survival. She has done extensive research into the story of the Baltic occupation and deportations and has deftly woven numerous facts into the plot. Stalin’s actions were kept secret until the 1990s, which explains why his acts have remained obscure until fairly recently.
It is easy to empathize with the characters and what they are going through. Sepetys’ descriptions of the horrors the Lithuanians endure is painful to read. Lina and Jonas have to grow up too fast to handle everything that is thrown their way. Elena is helpful to her children and the other people around her because she has such a positive outlook, even when things seem bleak and hopeless.
There are maps at the front of the book showing a timeline and the distance that the Vilkas family traveled. There are discussion questions, an interview with the author, and an excerpt from Out of the Easy, Ruta Sepetys’ newest novel, at the end of the book.
This novel has won a number of honors--all well-deserved! Fans of Holocaust and World War II literature will enjoy Between Shades of Gray. I highly recommend it for middle school, high school, and public libraries. I enthusiastically give it five out of five fleur de lis!!!!