--> by Ruta Sepetys, a teen/YA historical novel, since it was first published in 2011. When it came time to choose a birthday gift for my 14-year old cousin who loves history, I decided to give her two of the best YA historical novels I could find. She is especially fascinated by the World War II period of history and loved The Diary of Anne Frank, so I chose The Book Thief and Between Shades of Gray for her. In her thank you note to me, she said she was in the middle of reading Between Shades of Gray and never wanted it to end. I decided I needed to finally read this acclaimed novel for myself, so we can talk about it when I see her at Thanksgiving next week. This compelling novel about a little-known historical tragedy deserves all of the praise it’s gotten.
In 1941, fifteen year-old Lina is living a typical teen life with her family in Lithuania, which has recently been occupied by the Soviet Union. Her family is close and loving, she loves to draw and paint, she and her cousin enjoy sharing their dreams and wishes with each other, and she is even beginning to notice boys. Then her world is shattered when the Soviet secret police burst into her home one day and force her and her mother and younger brother into a train car headed for an unknown destination. Lina’s father was taken the day before, and the family has no idea where he is.
The Soviets separate the women and children from the men, and they are forced into crowded freight train cars, where they struggle to stay alive with little food or water. Eventually, Lina, her mother, and her brother arrive at a Soviet work camp. Conditions are inhumane, and they are made to work at hard labor for 12 hours or more a day, with a food ration of just a piece of bread for each person each day. Lina struggles to remain hopeful and to find a way to find her father and get word to him of where they are being kept. Although she knows it is dangerous, she draws pictures of their experiences and hides them, in the hope that someday their story will be told. She surreptitiously draws coded pictures that she passes along from one person to the next, hoping they will eventually arrive at the prison camp where her father is being held.
This is a beautifully written and emotionally powerful story. Lina and her fellow captives come alive on these pages, and it is impossible to set this book aside – or forget its characters – once you start it. Behind this moving story are real-life facts that are astonishing and that most people, myself included, have never heard before. While most of the world was watching Hitler and the Nazis in Germany, the Soviet Union was quietly deporting hundreds of thousands of people from the Baltic countries of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania (as well as Finland) to Soviet labor camps and prisons in Siberia, some further north than the Arctic Circle. These people were deemed anti-Soviet for one reason or another and included doctors, engineers, teachers and university professors, librarians, and more. Many of them, including children, were held prisoner for 10-15 years in Siberia, under horrifying conditions.
It was stunning to me that all of this went on, and I’d never heard about it before. It seems that few people did. Even after the prisoners were returned to their hometowns (more than a decade later!), their beloved countries were still a part of the Soviet Union, and they were warned that if they ever spoke of their experiences, the secret police would immediately deport them and their families back to Siberia. This forced silence continued until the Soviet Union was disbanded in 1991 and the Baltic countries once again regained their names. Thankfully, some people – like Lina in the novel – wrote or drew about their experiences and buried or hid their journals and drawings to be found decades later.
This novel just blew me away. Between the fascinating historical backdrop and the engaging characters, the story as a whole was absolutely compelling. A week after finishing it, I still can not get it out of my mind. Everyone should read this amazing book and learn about this mostly unknown tragedy. I can’t wait to talk to my cousin about it next week!
338 pages, Philomel Books
NOTE: Like many Holocaust novels, this book describes some horrible events and includes a fair amount of tragedy and death; however, it also sends a message of hope and love, showing how people can survive and maintain their spirits under the most atrocious conditions. It is best for teens and young adults (and adults); parts of the book may be too disturbing for younger children.