★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Ruta Sepetys’ YA book, Between Shades of Grey*, opens in 1941, when the family of fifteen-year old Lina Vilkas is snatched from their Lithuanian home by the Chekists, the Soviet Secret Police (eventually called the KGB) as she is writing a letter to her cousin Joana.
Joana’s family escaped before the recent Soviet invasion of the Baltic Countries (Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania).
Lina’s family was preparing to escape, but weren’t quick enough.
First her father, considered a threat to the new regime because of his job as the university provost, doesn’t come home. Then Lina, her mother, and younger brother Jonas are forced from their home and eventually onto a crowded, smelly, boarded-up cattle car. They are deported through Belarus, through Smolensk, Russia through the Southern Urals to an Altai labor camp in Siberia. Through many stops and starts, eventually they are exiled to a prison camp bordering the Arctic Ocean in the frigid bleakness of the Russian tundra. If you went from Maine through Texas to Mexico and then up along the California coast, through Canada to the top of Alaska, you still wouldn’t have gone as far as they were taken from their home. Along the way, Lina risks her life by communicating messages to others through her art and hides a written and artistic account of the journey. Her persistence in communication with those she meets awards her with an encounter with her father, a prisoner on another train car.
As the mother of two Ukrainian daughters and an unapologetic Russophile (meaning I am attracted to Russian history, language, art, and culture), I have read many memoirs and thinly veiled fiction (three books by Solzhenitsyn come immediately to mind) about the atrocities of the Soviet Regime, especially under Stalin. I’ve read about the Holodomor (where the Soviets starved the Ukrainian people) and the waves of arrests, torture, and deportation to the prison camps. But this is the first I’ve read of the Lithuanian persecutions. When tyrants rule, no one is spared the horrors of their evil whims.
While it could be considered a small miracle to survive the squalid train ride in cattle cars lacking rudimentary sanitary amenities like bathrooms, running water, space to lie down, temperature control and adequate food, but certainly not lacking trigger-happy guards, disease, and distress, surviving life in the Gulag, was like winning the Powerball Lottery. Most political prisoners could not endure the squalor, the malnourishment, the extreme temperatures, the work requirements, the disease, and the brutality long enough to complete their sentence. Assuming they had a sentence. For most political prisoners, the whole arrest was a travesty. Most in the Lithuanian wave were never accused, tried, or convicted–perhaps because the Soviets knew they had no case against these innocent people. They were sent to die because they were deemed too smart or too successful or too patriotic or fill in the blanks.
Between Shades of Grey gets five ★s from me because there was so much to like. I liked the quirky characters and cheered and grieved for them. I liked its fast pace and page-turning suspense. I liked that Sepetys researched what had actually happened to make Lina’s story as realistic and true to history as possible and that she could tie this with her Lithuanian relatives. I like it that Dr. Samodurov really existed and that there always seems to be brave men like him, willing to stick their necks out for good. I liked the flashbacks at the end of most chapters that spoke of what Lina’s life had been like before she was whisked away, making the contrast to the present even more chilling.
What I liked most is the voice of this feisty teenage girl, Lina, who holds on to hope of survival and fights for her family’s survival in impossible circumstances.
No good-hearted person wants to believe that innocent people were persecuted. It goes against our sense of justice. But when the innocent are children and teenagers, it really hits home. Sepetys writes so convincingly, I came away feeling I knew Lina: I rooted for Lina, despite knowing she was fictional and her story happened decades before my birth. This book delivers a sliver of gold for your heart, your mind, and your soul.
*NOT to be confused with Fifty Shades of Grey, a boring adult book that talks about the pros and cons of dying your hair.