Monday, June 18, 2012

Book Review: Between Shades of Gray

Between Shades of Gray
Ruta Sepetys
YA Historical
Published: 2011
“Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother's was worth a pocket watch.” 

Between Shades of Gray is that other "gray/grey" book; not the naughty fanfic take on Twilight that the mainstream media decided to go bonkers over for some peculiar reason. This book came out over a year ago but is new to paperback, which made for a rather confusing few months when Ruta Sepetys toured to promote her novel about refugees from Lithuania who survived exile brought on by the Soviet regime in World War II; more than a few befuddled attendees had confused her book with the kinky e-book turned publishing enigma. (See this article here in the author's own words)

I would recommend Between Shades of Gray to any reader, teen or not, as it's the type of story that transcends age. Lina and her family are forced out of their home, separated from her father, and stuffed into a dark train car with hundreds of others on a trip to an unspecified destination. In Stalin's regime, this was an attempt to take over the Baltic nations, and the secret government removed citizens with the most influence: teachers, doctors, journalists, artists. Their only crime was existing in a place where a communist dictator wanted control.

But the incredible thing about booting out the more intelligent and enterprising citizens is they banded together and constantly came up with new ideas on how to survive. Lina and her brother and mother are dropped off to a work camp where they share a shoddy hut with a cranky woman. Lina's mother shows this woman kindness despite her cruelty, and pays her rent even though they work 12 hours a day for a small ration of bread. The Soviet guards torture and belittle the workers, with exception of one young recruit who Lina's mother shows kindness to again and again, which Lina cannot understand until later in the story.

Lina sketches the refugees and draws everything she sees, hiding her sketchbook in a covert flap in her suitcase. Througout their exile, she's determined to capture the stories of the forgotten people and memorialzes those they've lost. She develops a relationship with a boy from another refugee family, but even they are separated when Lina's family is uprooted again and shipped off to the icy tundra of Siberia, left to survive a winter with no supplies and shelter they must construct themselves from meager kindling. 

While I knew about Nazi concentration camps, I hardly knew anything about Soviet occupation and the work camps. As the author points out in the extended notes after the book, since the Soviets held control over the Baltic states up until the 1990s, these stories were not told until very recently. This is an incredible look at the cruelty of war and the hope of those determined to survive.


  1. I just saw this in the store. Definitely on my tbr list.

  2. I love historical fiction. I'll have to check this out. GREAT first line!

  3. I really should read this one. I keep seeing it and hearing about it. How unfortunate that it has such a similar title to that other book. This poor author...

  4. This was one of my favorite reads from last year! Glad you enjoyed it as well.

  5. Oh, I ADORE this book. I've met Ruta, and she is as engaging and thoughtful in person as she is on the page. Great review!


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