Review: Between Shades of Gray

I received this book for free from ALA in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: Between Shades of GrayBetween Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
Published by Philomel on March 22, 2011
Genres: Historical
Pages: 344
Format: ARC
Source: ALA

Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they've known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin's orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions.

Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously--and at great risk--documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father's prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives. Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.

I was a history major at Hanover College, where I took a course on the Soviet Union and wrote my I.S. on some of Solzhenitsyn’s works. The World War II time period is among my favorite historical eras, so I was very excited to discover what Between Shades of Gray was about, as I had no idea when I picked it up.

This is a book that has been a long time coming. The atrocities of Nazi Germany are well known, mostly because they are so well-covered in popular culture. I have found that few people actually know much of anything about what Stalin wrought in his own country and the neighboring ones gobble up to be a part of the USSR. Sepetys’ may be the first to cover this topic for a teenage audience. Hopefully more will follow.

The story certainly calls to mind the Holocaust stories that preceded it, but Sepetys does a good job of pointing out the differences between the enslavement/incarceration in Germany and in the Soviet Union. Between Shades of Gray is not an uplifting book, although it is intended to inspire its reader to consider the nature of good and evil. The epilogue, which I am of two minds about, clearly states the author’s mission for the book, which is a good one, but is perhaps a bit too forceful when stated directly.

My only concern is whether Between Shades of Gray is dark enough. I read Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in its entirety, so I have a decent understanding of the Soviet prisons. However, Lina is not in one of the prisons and I know less about the camps like she lives in. Lina’s family seems overall to be spectacularly lucky. One illustration of this: Lina, in a very stupid move, draws pictures of pretty much everything that happens to her family and hides them, and not very cleverly. Somehow, though, she does not get caught. I kept expecting her to, as so many people went down for such things in the Soviet Union.

I do not intend this as a definitive criticism, solely as a question to consider, and I would be interested in hearing the opinions of others. My only real basis for comparison is Solzhenitsyn, who was writing for adults and to show the Soviet system at its worst. Whether it is a bit lighter than reality or not, Sepetys has written a wonderful and crucial book for teens.

Look for Between Shades of Gray in stores this March! This is one you shouldn’t miss.

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