Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
Title: Between Shades of Gray
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Rating: 4 Stars
Between Shades of Gray is the type of novel you need to mentally prepare yourself to read. If you don't, you'll probably find yourself like me, choking up within the first few pages itself. Yet, as the story wears on, you learn to breathe again and slowly, gently, carefully, Sepetys weaves this heart-breaking tale of loss, love, and hope.
What makes Between Shades of Gray such a phenomenal read is the mere fact that it is based off of truth. Sepetys has put an immense amount of research into her historical fiction debut and the passion she feels for these victims of Stalin's rule is palpable on every page. In fact, I was rendered speechless by my lack of knowledge of these events. When we think back on WWII, we immediately think to Hitler and the mass genocide of Jews that him and his Nazis conducted. Yet, just as important, were the thousands - no, millions - of people who died at the hands of Stalin and his men. Unfortunately, their ordeal is glossed over in history textbooks, but Sepetys has ensured that it will always be remembered.
Between Shades of Gray reminded me quite often of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Both novels were written with short, concise sentences, clearly conveying the cold, hard facts of the situation of the Lithuanians, but at the same time, they managed to be evocative and compelling. It is a unique writing style, one I appreciated and soaked up. With her debut, Sepetys introduces us to the family of Lina, a teenage artist who is taken with her mother and younger brother to a work camp in Siberia. Now, separated from her father, Lina resolves to document her experiences within her art, hoping against hope that they will somehow make their way to her father and he, in turn, will make his way back to her family.
Needless to say, Between Shades of Gray touches upon a delicate and depressing subject matter, but this is, first and foremost, a story of hope and incredible strength. Sepetys writes characters who are shockingly realistic and easy to empathize with, yet, despite their anger, frustration, and fear, they are kind, forgiving, and understanding. Lina, her younger brother Jonas, and her mother Elena are put with a group of people of all ages and gender. With them is a seventeen-year-old boy, Andrius, who has pretended to be slow so he can stay with his mother, a grouchy old bald man, and a newborn infant and her mother, amongst others.
With such a wide hose of characters, Sepetys manages to make each one shine. Elena manages to bring hope to their dismal group, never allowing them to give up and constantly bolstering their spirits. Slowly, we begin to realize that despite the tragedy that has befallen them, the Lithuanians are strong, resisting Stalin till the very end, stealing any food they can find and, best of all, sharing it. Between Shades of Gray may be a historical documentary of the unfolding events of Stalin's rule in Russia, but it is also the hidden tale of deep friendships, loyal companions, and surviving humanity. Truly, as the novel wears on, the beauty of this is all the more evident as we see this starving, death-ridden community come together for the sake of keeping just one more person alive, of getting word from just one other person deported elsewhere.
In the midst of all this is a small, short, but powerful love story. Lina and Andrius have only sentences in this novel dedicated to their romance, but their blooming friendship, gradual understanding of each other, and the everlasting hope they give one another is what stands out. Lina, too, is a remarkable heroine. Although she has her flaws, egregious ones that get her in trouble, and the inability to contain her anger and frustration, she is a strong protagonist, never giving up. Furthermore, her ability to see the world through the eyes of an artist is so sharply felt in this story. Lina draws and documents nearly every person and every location that she comes across and the solace, calm, and comfort this gives her builds her character. In addition, her story is littered with short flashbacks, of memories that she is reminded of during her travels, and these only further build the divide between her previous life and her current one.
All in all, Ruta Sepetys has written a deep, evocative, and powerful tale with her debut. Yet, although it remains to be engaging, satisfying, and utterly eye-opening, I was expecting a little more of a punch in the end. Ultimately, it felt as though this novel could have continued or at least ended on a more gut-wrenching note, perhaps like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Of course that ending was earth-shattering and still leaves me feeling hollow when I think about it, but it made an impact. Unfortunately, Between Shades of Gray lacked this, ever-so-slightly. Nevertheless, this is a novel that simply has to be read. Even if you don't like historical fiction, even if you don't like young adult, you need to read this. We all, as humans, owe it to humanity and the people who died, survived, and made peace under Stalin's rule to read this book. We really, really do.