Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Title: Between Shades of Gray
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Publisher: Philomel Books, 2011
Genre: YA, historical fiction
Source: Received from publisher

Between Shades of Gray
by Ruta Sepetys is the quietly told yet shattering story of a Lithuanian girl uprooted from her home by the NKVD (later the KGB) and deported to a prison sentence of hard labor with her mother and younger brother. Despite the harrowing conditions and heartbreaking loss of loved ones, Lina survives one day at a time and draws pictures so that someday, others will know what happened.

While at times, the pace of this story seemed slow, the strength of the message it bears gives it power. It's hard to follow the traditional plotline we learn in middle school English of rising action, climax, denoument when the subjects are in a prison camp where every day is a dreary drudge of hunger and physical pain, but the ability of Lina to rise above her circumstances gives her gray surroundings color and life, just like her drawings transform a drab landscape into pictures at times terrifying and at times haunting. Even though she is surrounded by evil and brutal soldiers, Lina comes into contact with many small acts of heroism from her family members, other prisoners, and even the soldiers, and in those moments she sees "between shades of gray."
A tiny sliver of gold appeared between shades of gray on the horizon. I stared at the amber band of sunlight, smiling. The sun had returned.
Because this is a story of human triumph, the most colorful images on the bleak horizon are the characters. Many are giving despite their horrible circumstances. I loved Lina's mother - despite all the abuse she encounters, despite her own hungry children, she never fails to give some of her food to those who have less because they are unable to work. She refuses to hear unfair words or disrespect spoken by her children, even about some of the cruelest soldiers. She recognizes the beauty and potential in everyone. I also loved the relationship between Lina and Andrius. It is understated - they don't wax verbose on their love, or talk about it to their friends, because they are in an awful prison camp full of people who want to make their lives as miserable as possible. But small actions color their romance and give it even more power - Andrius stealing a precious birthday gift for Lina. A small stone with sparkles in it that they pass between each other that comes to represent hope.

Many of the lesser characters were known by just one characteristic. The bald man, the man who wound his watch, the grouchy woman. I think I understand why Sepetys kept these characters generally anonymous - they were stripped of their former lives when they were deported and reduced to prisoners. Sometimes it bothered me that I was never given their names, however - because this book was told from Lina's perspective, it seemed unrealistic that she would never find out their names.

The writing was beautiful and Sepetys did an excellent job of transmitting the emotions of the camp. There was a moment when I was standing in line for a Markus Zusak author event (on Saturday, hooray!) and I was moved to tears by the fear and tension in a particular scene. I felt as if I were in Lina's place, and I think it is impressive that Sepetys can inspire not only sympathy but empathy. I also enjoyed her clever metaphors - Lina compares her family to cigarettes after watching an officer stomp one out on the floor, for example. Here is my personal favorite:
I pictured a rug being lifted and a huge Soviet broom sweeping us under it.
This story is at times a difficult read because of the tragedy and suffering to which these people were reduced - a tragedy even more difficult because it really happened. However, the beauty of Sepetys' writing and Lina's unconquerable spirit are in the end uplifting. This is a gorgeous debut and I look forward to reading more of Septys' work.

Readability: Flows. Written for young adults, so a quick read.
Plot: 3.5
Characters: 4
Writing: 4
Personal response: 4
Overall: 4

FTC Disclosure: ARC received from publisher


  1. I really, really really need to get ahold of this book!!

  2. I saw that you liked it on Goodreads and searched it out. It sounds great, but I just finished Madame Tussaud and The Book Thief, and cannot commit to any more tragic novels at this time. I will definitely share when I do get it.

  3. I can't wait to get this book. I'm glad you liked it! Makes me even more eager.

  4. I absolutely loved this book. I read it so quickly and cried my eyes out the whole way through it. Ruta Sepetys just had an incredible way of painting the picture of life during this time and an awful part of history that I wish I had known about. I read and reviewed this last year but I still think about it and I still get a little teary-eyed when I think of certain scenes. Beautiful review.

  5. @Amanda - Yes you do! It is so good.

    @Beth - I just met Markus Zusak on Saturday and now I really want to read The Book Thief again. He did a reading from the chapter "Confessions" and I almost started crying. And I've been wanting to read Madame Tussaud! I have a couple of Michelle Moran books sitting on my shelf that my sis-in-law lent me. This is a heavy one, but I hope you get to it eventually because it is beautiful.

    @Sarah - I'm excited to read what you think! I always enjoy reading your reviews because we read a lot of the same books but often have different opinions of them, and reading your insights gives me new perspectives.

    @Coffee and a Book Chick - This one made me cry too! Your review actually is what brought the book to my attention in the first place! This is definitely going to be a book I reread, I think.


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