Friday, June 10, 2011

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Release Date: March 22nd, 2011
Publisher: Philomel
Source: Publisher

Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they've known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin's orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions.
Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously—and at great risk—documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father's prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives. Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.
Using the few traces of history that were left behind and her talent for vivid story-telling, Ruta Sepetys has crafted a fearless, poignant novel that gives voice to the millions that were silenced during World War II by shedding light on one of humanity’s forgotten chapters of history.

Lina was a resilient, headstrong girl who cared tremendously about her family. Despite her young age, she was very intelligent and aware of the danger that surrounded her--but her headstrong ways sometimes blinded her to things that were obvious (which of course shows the reader that while she is smart, she's still young and has much more to learn). Her stubborness however was smoothed away at times by her wiser, patient mother and her younger brother, Jonas. Sepetys did a beautiful job of depicting Lina's family and their collective strength needed to endure so much abuse.Lina's mother was a particularly brilliant character and through Lina's memories, we see her mother as an elegant, beautiful woman but seeing her actions during the war, the reader gets to view Lina's mother as a tough, courageous woman willing to die for her children. Lina clearly inherited her mother's strength but instead of being quiet and humble, she can be impetuous but her heart is in the right place.

There was a hint of romance in the story that helped contribute to Lina's coming of age because her "inner blinders" fall away, enabling her to see others and their own desperate situations outside her immediate circle. Her relationship with Andrius also gave the story some momentary pockets of hope since the overall story is drenched with sadness.

Art is also a constant throughout the book. Lina uses her artistic talent to record everything that was happening through discreet symbols and fragments of sentences in her drawings; I found this to be an important element since Lina's determination to send word out to her father (who was seperated from the rest of the family) really added a sense of urgency to the novel (aside from the devastation that was already underway). Sepetys didn't shy away from illustrating the horrors the NKVD imposed upon the captives or the daily tragedies that occurred to the Baltic people but she wrote every heart-wrenching scene with empathy and grace.

Nonetheless, there was one detail of the book that I initially had trouble accepting; the ending at first felt abrupt and there were plot lines left answered so as a reader, I struggled to just accept it but from a writer's point of view, I understood why Sepetys wrote it the way she did. After mulling over it for a while, I realized that what felt abrupt was actually very wise of Sepetys to do--history itself will always give us unanswered questions and Between Shades of Gray mirrors this very fact. Sometimes the stories themselves outweigh the people involved (like Lina for example).

Told with bravery and beauty, Ruta Sepetys' Between Shades of Gray is a deeply emotional, powerful novel that tells an important story that must be heard and pays homage to the power of human perserverance, loyalty and love.

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