Between Shades Of Gray – Ruta Sepetys
It's 1941 and fifteen-year-old artist Lina Vilkas is on Stalin's extermination list. Deported to a prison camp in Siberia, Lina fights for her life, fearless, risking everything to save her family. It's a long and harrowing journey and it is only their incredible strength, love, and hope that pull Lina and her family through each day. But will love be enough to keep them alive?
“Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother's was worth a pocket watch.” – Between Shades of Gray
I don’t think I’ve ever started a review with a quote before, but that’s some brilliant writing right there. It deserves to be slapped up at the top. The whole book is beautifully written.
Between Shades of Gray tells the story of a Lithuanian teenager, Lina Vilkas, whose life is threatened when the Russian army invades Lithuania in the 1940s. Her family is on Stalin’s “enemies” list. Before they can flee the country, they’re captured and sent to a Siberian prison camp. With no hope of escape, Lina has to make the best of a bad situation.
I was interested in this book because my ancestors were also on Stalin’s list. My family lived in Russia for hundreds of years, but they weren’t ethnically Russian, so Stalin considered them enemies. The ones who didn’t get out of Russia before the 1940s were sent to prison camps. One-third (I think?) of the people in the camps died. So, that’s the story of why I’m American and not Russian. My great-grandparents got out.
Back to the book: I liked it. It’s about prison camps, so it has the potential to be massively depressing, but it’s actually a hopeful story. It focuses on the goodness of people and how strangers can help each other survive horrible situations.
The setting is well-developed. It’s easy to picture the train cars stuffed with prisoners, and the lice-infested shacks at the camps. I’ve never been to Siberia, and I wasn’t alive in the 1940s, but this novel brought everything to life for me.
“Was it harder to die, or harder to be the one who survived?” – Between Shades of Gray
I love every character in this book. Lina and her love interest, Andrius, are strong and determined to keep their families alive. Unlike in many young adult stories, the parents are actually competent. They do whatever it takes to protect their children. I only have one complaint about the characters. I wish Lina had more agency. I realize she’s a prisoner, and she doesn’t have control over her life, but she doesn’t really do anything. She’s mostly an observer. Her mother and Andrius do more to move the plot than she does, which is weird because she’s the main character.
There is a romantic subplot, but it’s kept to a minimum. I appreciate that because it would have been easy for the love story to dominate over everything else. The author keeps the focus on the camp and the characters’ survival. I think that was the right move.
“We'd been trying to touch the sky from the bottom of the ocean. I realized that if we boosted one another, maybe we'd get a little closer.” – Between Shades of Gray
The beginning hooked me right away. I stayed up way too late at night because I didn’t want to put the book down. But, then the plot became a little too slow for my tastes toward the middle/end. Once the characters are settled into their routine at the prison camp, I feel like the story loses some of its urgency. I understand why the plot slows down. For the characters, time passes slowly in the camps, but it’s too slow for me.
Between Shades of Gray is an important book. Many people don’t know about the Siberian prison camps. During history lessons at school, Stalin’s actions often get overshadowed by the other events of WWII. I’m glad this book is so popular because it’s bringing attention to a part of history that is sometimes overlooked. I’m excited to read Ruta Sepetys’s other books.