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He paused for a few moments, motionless, and then began slamming the stone against the markings, harder and harder.  He beat the floorboards with such force that I thought he might break his hand.  I moved toward him.  Andrius stopped me.

“Let him do it,” he said.

I looked at him, uncertain.

“Better that he gets used to it,” he said.

Used to what, the feeling of uncontrolled anger?  Or a sadness so deep, like your very core has been hollowed out and fed back to you from a dirty bucket?

I looked at Andrius, his face still warped with bruising.  He saw me staring.  “Are you used to it?” I asked.

A muscle in his jaw twitched.  He pulled a cigarette butt from his pocket and lit it.  “Yeah,” he said, blowing a stream of smoke into the air.  “I’m used to it.”

(from Between Shades of Gray, page 72)

Only a cold-hearted person could read Between Shades of Gray without crying or feeling at the very least incredibly sad.  It’s hard to believe this is Ruta Sepetys’ first novel because her writing hits you in the gut and pulls at your heart over and over again, and she knows just how to pace a story and make her characters come to life.  The only downside to this book is that it ended before I was ready to say good-bye to the characters.

Between Shades of Gray draws attention to a little known event of World War II:  the Soviet invasion of Lithuania and the deportation or execution of Lithuanians deemed anti-Soviet.  The book is geared toward young adult readers, but adults will get swept away and fall in love with the characters, too.  In this novel based on her father’s family and survivors’ stories, Sepetys personalizes things by focusing on the Vilkas family:  15-year-old, Lina, 10-year-old Jonas, and their mother, Elena.  Lina’s father, a university provost, was arrested and sent to a prison camp.  In June 1941, the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, arrest the rest of the Vilkas family and deport them to a labor camp (a collective farm) in Siberia.  Lina is a talented artist, and her hope is that she can use her art to depict their journey, pass these messages on to her father so her family can be reunited, and tell the world the truth about what happened to them.

The book is told from the first-person viewpoint of Lina, and the fact that she is in such cramped quarters with other deportees makes it possible for readers to really get to know the supporting characters.  From the generous, big-hearted Elena and the innocent Jonas to the strong Andrius and the cranky, whining, and dependent bald man, Sepetys shows how the deportations affected so many people.  Sepetys does a great job creating numerous well-rounded characters and showing their evolution, which can be difficult when the story is told through the eyes of a single character.

Between Shades of Gray is a coming-of-age story of sorts, with Lina imprisoned during her milestone 16th birthday.  I loved that despite all the hardships and horrors, Sepetys infuses her story with hope and love.  The people had so little, but most were willing to share and use their limited strength and resources to help the wounded, the sick, and the weak.  Rather than give up and die, these people persevered.  They celebrated holidays by sharing memories, and they channeled their anger into survival.  For Lina, her art is what keeps her sane amidst so much death and cruelty.

Most of all, I loved how Sepetys drew me into the story from the very beginning.  Her descriptions are so vivid that I could never forget how cold, hungry, dirty, and exhausted the deportees were, how they were forced to dig and farm for a little piece of bread and use scraps to build a shelter from the deadly snowstorms.  And even when portraying the evil NKVD commanders and guards, Sepetys underscores the fact that not every one was completely devoid of heart or soul; there are shades of gray in the world that can make navigating its people confusing.

Between Shades of Gray was sad and heartbreaking, but at the same time, I couldn’t put it down.  I finished this 344-page book in about a day.  When I wasn’t reading, the story and the characters were with me…and about a week after finishing the book, they still are.  I’ve read dozens of World War II books over the past couple of years, but none dealt with the Lithuanian deportations.  The thousands and thousands of deportees who survived were forced to keep the trials they endured at the hands of the NKVD a secret long after the war, given that Lithuania remained under Soviet control until the 1990s, but Between Shades of Gray gives them a voice and aims to ensure we never forget.

Disclosure: I borrowed Between Shades of Gray from my local library. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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