Ruta Sepetys bases her debut novel on her own family’s history in Lithuania during WWII. It is part of a history that has been overshadowed by the other horrors witnessed during the war years.
Can a book about abuse and starvation and labour and imprisonment in a Siberian work camp be lyrical? This one can. The story about the atrocities committed by Stalin against so many during the war is evocative and beautiful and horrifying and soul crushing and stunning. It takes away hope with one hand, and lets it shine thorough with the other.
15 year old Lina is an artist, looking forward to a life at art school, and all the joys and trials of being a teen. But it is 1941, and she lives in Lithuania, and her life is about to come crashing down. Soviet secret police barge into her home and grab her family; Lina, her mother, and her young brother are separated from her father, sent north on a crowded train, and eventually end up at a work camp in Siberia.
There, Lina witnesses the worst of humanity, and the best. She documents her experiences through her art, in the hope that she can get word to her father where she and her mother and brother are being held. In the hope of seeing him again, and in the hope of maintaining her soul through her sketches. She wants to honour their fight for survival, whether or not they make it out alive.
The title of the book perfectly captures her long imprisonment. She is terrified by the evil which surrounds her, and lifted up by the moments of goodness displayed at the most surprising times.
SO beautifully written. The flashbacks, Lina’s perspective, the way Sepetys documents the day to day life in the camps is more than compelling. She dragged me kicking and screaming into the crowded trains and barracks and freezing fields, right into the fight for food and medicine and life. The bone-numbing cold and the growing pile of corpses, the loss of friend after friend after family member is heart-wrenching and horrifying.
The characters are vivid and so well written. The toll of their imprisonment, the strain of the adults trying to shield their children, the children being forced into early adulthood, and even the innocent romance between Lina and Andrius; the characters lose hope even as they continue to fight for their lives, and Sepetys writes them all so clearly.
This is a tough book about a horrific subject. But it is still a YA novel, and can be read by the entire age range.
Between Shades of Gray is published by Philomel Books.