“They took me in my nightgown.” So begins teenage Lina’s horrific journey from her beloved home in Lithuania to the icy land of Siberia, when she and her family are deported by the Soviets who have annexed her country and are systematically ridding it of anyone they consider “anti-Soviet.” Lina, her mother and brother are separated from her father and packed into cattle cars that travel ever farther North to hardscrabble beet and potato farms where deportees are literally worked to death. There are many times along the way that Lina wants to give up. Like when a fellow traveler is shot in the head and dumped from the train for mourning her lost child. Or when her younger brother gets scurvy from months of starvation rations. But through it all, Lina’s beautiful mother Elena keeps the family’s spirits up by constantly telling them that not only will their imprisonment soon end, but they will find their father and all live together again in their own house. Lina just tries to make it through each long hungry day, only made bearable by her mother’s hope, her ability to lose herself by drawing, and her crush on Andrius, a fellow prisoner. Then, another blow. Lina and her family are being sent North again, this time to Siberia where the sun doesn’t rise for six months and the cold can kill. Lina’s despair is complete. How can she keep believing in her mother’s words when she is surrounded on all sides by darkness and death? In Between Shades of Gray, author Ruta Sepetys, herself the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, brings to light a little known period of history that many Americans are unfamiliar with: the systematic deportation of doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists, business owners, or anyone considered “counter-revolutionary” from the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia during dictator Josef Stalin’s reign (1922-1953). In her author’s note at the back of the novel, Sepetys states, “It is estimated that Josef Stalin killed more than twenty million people during his reign of terror. The Baltic States…lost more than a third of their population during the Soviet genocide…to this day, many Russians deny they ever deported a single person.” Sepetys’ unflinching portrayal of the work camps and the bravery of the people who survived them will tug at your heart and hurt your head. And I’m not the only one both devastated and uplifted by Lina’s story. Check out these other reviews of Between Shades of Gray, then head to your nearest library, bookstore or ereader to experience the heartbreak for yourself. 4 weepies.
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys