Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys / My rating: ★★★★★
One sentence summary: Along with her mother and brother, teenager Lina Vilkas is deported from her home in Lithuania by the Soviets and is sent to the inhumane conditions of a beet farm to the icy tundra of arctic Siberia, all the while creating art in the hopes that it will help reunite them with her father.
We’d been trying to touch the sky from the bottom of the ocean. I realized that if we boosted one another, maybe we’d get a little closer.
Genre: Young Adult/Historical Fiction
Plot: This book is beautiful, but it’s not particularly pretty. The events are gut wrenching and terrifyingly horrible, but when I think back on it, I see the beauty Sepetys paints between the horror, and she does it in a masterful way. She writes about a rather lesser-known side of World War II, about the atrocities Stalin imposed on the Lithuanians, Latvians, Finns and countless others that are hidden behind the Soviet secrecy in the decades after the war. This book is about evil, and it is about finding humanity where you might not expect to, and it will tug your heart out.
Characters: This book is all character, pushed by the merciless tide of the terrible conditions they’re put in. I loved these characters. We have to start with Lina’s mother, my favorite. She is solid and she is unrelentingly kind, and she carries a imperturbable power and strength throughout the novel. There’s Jonas, my second favorite and Lina’s younger brother, who has a kind of sweetness that I was always terrified might disappear. Andrius, the son of a Lithuanian officer and an unexpected spot of strength and goodness despite the choices he’s forced into. Lina, a bold, temperamental girl with a gift for art who can’t help but draw the truth, even when it’s dangerous. Sepetys also has a way of giving life to secondary characters that hits you right in the chest. She writes of characters who are good but flawed, who are bad but kind, and shows us that more often than not, nothing is black and white.
Writing: Sepetys writes with grace. I love her writing. It’s a horrific story, beautifully written. I want to read a million books written by her.
Was I satisfied? Yes. It’s a book that I know will stick with me, the characters and the actual history. What haunts me most of all, something I’d known before but never had really realized until I saw through the eyes of Lina, is that these people, deported from their own countries, controlled, criminalized, and victimized by the Soviets, had hope of rescue from the Americans…and then you realize, the Americans and the Soviets were on the same side. And it’s books like these, always, that inspire me to be kind.