Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

A moving and haunting novel for readers of The Book Thief

Fifteen-year-old Lina is a Lithuanian girl living an ordinary life—until Soviet officers invade her home and tear her family apart. Separated from her father and forced onto a crowded train, Lina, her mother, and her young brother make their way to a Siberian work camp, where they are forced to fight for their lives. Lina finds solace in her art, documenting these events by drawing. Risking everything, she imbeds clues in her drawings of their location and secretly passes them along, hoping her drawings will make their way to her father’s prison camp. But will strength, love, and hope be enough for Lina and her family to survive?

This powerful tale of heartbreak and hope is sure to haunt readers long after they finish the last page.

While reading this book, I frequently felt conflicted over the author’s writing and the format she used to tell the story. Athough it felt dissatisfying, I also understood why she made the choices she did. An example – for the majority of the book, I couldn’t understand why the author included multiple flashbacks to Lina’s life before deportation rather than simply start the book in that time and then show the political situation getting progressively worse until her father is arrested and she and her mother and brother are deported. Then right near the book’s ending, the inclusion of the flashbacks started to make more sense and the revelation does ultimately connect back to the very beginning of the story. So I essentially spent a majority of my time disliking the flashbacks when they actually did serve a purpose… Another thing I didn’t like was the shortness of the chapters; there are 85 chapters and an epilogue in a 338-page book. At the same time, I absolutely sped right through this book in a way I haven’t for a long time this year, so I guess they weren’t as bothersome as I kept thinking they were. I don’t know. The short length gave the events contained in each chapter an episodic feeling, which might have been a very intentional choice to highlight what happens to Lina in that manner. In which case I respect the choice, but would have personally preferred longer chapters and a greater confluence of events. Also, I’m not sure how I feel about the epilogue – does this mean that the entire story was supposed to have been written by Lina after her imprisonment? Because there’s no way I would have read it like that without the epilogue implying that’s what it is, which means I’m not happy with how that was handled.

In terms the story itself, it was fascinating from a historical perspective. The author focuses on something I have not seen written about in either in fiction or nonfiction –  the deportation, imprisonment, and murder of millions of Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians, Finns, and other Eastern European peoples. (Maybe in some cases it was combined with the mass deportation of Russians to become a general phenomenon?) Even so, the focus wasn’t so much on the historical, political situation that resulted in this atrocity, but on the human stories and experiences of living through, surviving, and dying in this new world. Almost all of the characters were painted in a sympathetic light, even the cranky bald man who won’t stop talking about how they’re all about to die. Even though the main character is Lina, I’d say that the most impressive character of them all is her mother for keeping the family together as long as possible and doing whatever it takes to make sure Lina and Jonas survive. It’s an emotionally charged story, and in that respect it is beautifully told.

However, given that Lina and all these other people are deported and imprisoned for political reasons, the context in which her story takes place is strangely apolitical. She knows that it’s mostly the wealthy, educated, and those who have international connections that are being targeted, the flashbacks show Lina’s parents discussing and worrying about Stalin’s invasion, and sometimes people talk about Germany and World War Two if they hear any news about it. And yet, none if it is really grounded. Like, if I hadn’t known anything about Stalinist Russian and his perpetration of communism, him invading Lithuania and the other Baltic countries wouldn’t have made sense, nor would the deportations. The way the author wrote this story, it’s as though there’s this lack of awareness of why any of this is happening. Or at least that’s how I read it. Maybe this is because I like seeing how big, national actions are interconnected to the individuals who are the ones who suffer as a result of those actions.

Meh. I feel like I’m being overly picky here because I did enjoy reading this book and it was almost impossible for me to put down because I kept going through chapter after chapter, just to make sure that everyone was still surviving. Lina and everone else’s lack of knowledge was used beautifully – it heightened the tension because no one knew what to expect, where they’re being taken to now, or what new horrors were about to happen. And in terms of the subject matter, it’s an important book about  little-known or publicized brutal historical times. There were parts I was definitely drawn to, but the overall work didn’t click with me.

Disclosure – library