Thursday, April 14, 2011
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
Between Shades of Gray helps to fill in the particulars about Stalin’s specific form of genocide. It tells the story of one family taken from their home in the middle of the night in June 1941 who became part of the mass deportations to Soviet prisons and labor camps. The story is told from the point of view of 15 year old Lina Vilkas. Lina was a typical girl, living in Kaunas, Lithuania. She was happy, friendly, just beginning to notice boys and looking a talented artist forward to a summer at a prestigious art school. Life was very good for the Vilkas.
That all changed on the night of June 14, 1941. First, Lina’s father didn’t return home from his job as provost of the university. Then, in the middle of the night, Lina is taken in her nightgown, along with her mother and her 11 year old brother Jonas by armed members of the NKVD. The family was put on a truck along with many others who had been rounded up; hours later, they arrived at a remote train station along with many more truckloads of people. Here male and female are separated, Jonas sent to the male side. His desperate mother eventually manages to buy him back with a gold watch. Next, they are loaded onto crowded cattle cars and sit in them in the summer heat for what feels like days on end. Lina and Jonas meet Andrius, 17, whose mother also saved him, telling the NKVD he was a simpleton and the three become friends.
Eventually, the trains begin moving and 42 days after they were taken from their homes, they arrived at the Aftai Labor Camp. Lina and her family are placed in a crude hut where they must pay the peasant woman inside rent to stay, and must work long hard hours to get food rations – a chunk of bread, some watery soup. Conditions are deplorable. Many lack proper winter clothing with the result that when the weather changes, many of them get sick and die. Through it all, Lina secretly documents everything she sees through her drawings. She also develops a serious attachment to Andrius, who has access to bits of food he can steal and readily pass along, helping to keep the Vilkas family alive. Lina’s mother, Elena, shares everything with the peasant they live with, much to Lina’s chagrin. Nevertheless, it makes life in the hut easier and seems to buy the peasant woman’s silence.
After 264 days working at the Aftai Labor Camp, some of the deportees are loaded up onto another train and make the long trek, 134 days, to create a labor camp in Trofimovsk, Siberia. Lina must say good-bye to Andrius, who tells her it is not good-bye, he will find her some day. By now, Lina wants and considers Andrius to be her boyfriend, a reason to be strong and not give up. Arriving just across the Artic Circle in August, it is already freezing. The deportees now consist of not only Lithuanians, but also Latvians, Estonians and Finns. The men are told they must build comfortable building for the NKVD out of the fine materials that were brought. The women are told to build huts for themselves out of whatever they could find in the barren landscape of the Artic before the first snow or they will perish.
Can Lina and her family survive the Artic winter and the cruel treatment of the camps commander? And will Andrius find Lina again, in the middle of nowhere?
Throughout, Lina feels a compulsive need to draw and document everything she sees, even if it is only on some small bits of paper she manages to get her hands on. As she narrates the story of their arrest, deportation and survival in the labor camps, you can see her drawing in her words; she speaks with a true artist’s eye for detail. And nothing is spared, from the toilet conditions to the old woman who scraped off and ate the bread that had been spit on her shoes by the contemptuous commander of the Artic camp.
Scenes like those make this was a very emotionally wrenching novel based in fact, an example of the very best kind of historical fiction and one not to be missed. I was drawn in the moment I read the first line; “They took me in my nightgown.” All of the characters are realistically drawn, right down to those who grumbler, complainer and think only of themselves. They are simply ordinary people in extraordinary times who must learn how to survive.
Between Shades of Gray is a powerful book, and the excellent writing sweeps you along Ms. Sepetys has done meticulous research. She writes in the Author’s Note that she was inspired by her own Lithuania heritage and the member’s of her father’s family who were rounded up by the NKVD and, like Lina’s family, imprisoned in labor camps.
Many of the people rounded up and subjected to hard labor in remote camps throughout the Soviet Union were given long sentences, often as long as 25 years. In reality, those who survived began to be released in 1953. By the end of the 1950s, their release was complete.
Ms. Sepetys has included two maps at the beginning of the novel. The first is simply a map to show the great distance the prisoners traveled from Kaunas, Lithuania to Trofimovsk, Siberia; the second map is a timeline of the places mentioned and the time spent in each place. I found them extraordinarily helpful while reading.
This book is recommended for readers age 12 and up.
This book was borrowed from the Webster Branch of the NYPL.
Ruta Sepetys discusses Between Shades of Gray on her website at
A useful discussion guide may be downloaded at http://www.betweenshadesofgray.com/bookclubs.php