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.

20 comments:

  1. Your opening paragraph for this review is just beautiful, Keertana. I have been preparing myself to read this book for over a year, but unfortunately I'm not quite there yet. But wow, what an amazing review! I love the way you describe the characters and the love story. And you're right, we do owe that debt. I think I'd better pull this off the shelf soon.

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  2. Yes! I really liked Lina and her strenght too. Only someone like her could have endured all that and remain sane. I also adored the subtle romance. That one sentence was enough, wasn't it? This book was a huge eye-opener for me in more ways than one. I loved every second of it.
    Fantastic, beautifully written review, my friend.

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  3. Your review for this book is so beautiful Keertana! The plot of the book reminds me of another Holocaust non-fiction work which I read called "The Cage" by Ruth Minsky Sender. I highly recommend that one too.

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  4. Oh, this book. I've tried so hard to gather the courage to read it countless times, but I still haven't managed yet. It's the subject matter, I think. I did quite a bit on Stalin a few years ago when I was in school, which is probably the only reason I know so much about his rule. I doubt I would, otherwise. Anyway, your review has me wanting to grab my copy and cracking this open. I feel like I really should meet this Lina soon. Beautiful review as always, Keertana! I'm glad you were, for the most part, impressed with this.

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  5. I am so happy that you loved this book! I read it in December last year and loved it also :) I am sorry that you were left disappointed in the ending. I actually loved it! Beautiful review!

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  6. Splendid review! Love the way you convey all of the wonderful things about the book but include your thoughts about its imperfect ending too. Every time I read a review of this book I want to go back and re-read it (after reading it about a year ago.) Great comparison with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas too - not only are their subject matters similar but the way they convey the story through their writing works amazingly as well.

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  7. What a beautifully written review, Keertana! I've had this book on my radar for a while and actually just got it out of the library a few days ago, so I plan on reading it very soon. I do plan on making sure I have a good understanding of the type of book I'm getting into here and that I'm in the right mood. I do think the book is definitely more intriguing simply because it focuses on a lesser-known aspect of a well-known conflict. I have not read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, so hopefully I won't have certain ending expectations like you did. I am glad you were able to enjoy and appreciate this book overall, though.

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  8. I think this is such an important book, and it makes me happy to see so many people reading it and appreciating it. It's such a moving and powerful story, I remember still reeling for days after finishing it. I think the author did a wonderful job in communicating how horrific the situation was, yet not painting the characters as purely black and white. I think it was a very honest and brave portrayal of events. Lovely review!

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  9. Beautifully written review as always Keertana! This books sounds poignant and heartbreaking and gorgeous, and I really need to make time to pick it up! I actually think I prefer a book like this not to end on a gut-wrenching note, my poor little heart couldn't take it, so that will likely work for me:) Glad you enjoyed it so much my friend!

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  10. I am such a wimp, simple as that is the only reasonable answer I can give for not having picked up this beautiful novel that you have mentioned, The same goes with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I think the only time I will give this book a try will be when I'm off work for a week or so, as I know I'll be left with big puffy eyes by the sound of this heartbreaking book. Keertana you have once again produced such a beautiful, raw and honest review! I love it! :)

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  11. I am a wuss too when it comes to reading these types of books. I know it will gut me and leave me haunted as they always do, and I do intend to read this when I am in the right frame of mind. I know it is one of those books that will change me, as it did you. Lovely and thoughtful review.

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  12. Keertana, I love the comparison you drew with this book and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, because they're both really quite alike. Although, maybe because I read this in 3rd grade (my elementary school librarian did it as a read-aloud, which I think was quite a bad decision), I find myself preferring Between Shades of Gray. And one of the biggest reasons is because of the ending, contrary to what you said. I think when a book ends SO depressingly, as with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, that just takes away from my reading experience, because there always has to be hope. With Between Shades of Gray, the ending was a mix of sadness and hope, which is exactly what I loved about it.

    Anyways, I have to agree with everything else you said. Even with her faults, Lena was a fabulous main character and the touch of romance was fantastic.

    Amazing review as always, Keertana! <3

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  13. First of all, I have to say how beautifully written your review is. This book sounds like a book that I would adore. Though I will make sure to mentally prepare myself before starting it. Its also interesting to read about something that happened way back, and a story based on a true story. Will def have to read this.
    - Farah @ MajiBookshelf

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  14. Oh Keertana, this is just such a beautifully-written review (not that ALL of yours aren't!). Like you mentioned, I think this book requires a bit of mental preparation and while I'm still a little intimidated by it, I definitely intend to read it one day. I'm so glad that the emotion hit you so strongly and that you were able to connect to the characters. Thanks for the wonderful review! <3

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  15. I am with all these other people who say they are still working up to reading this book. I love that it features a great cast of characters, and is about a part of history that is often looked over. I adore books that bring to my attention information that I may never have known otherwise, and to place it within an engaging story is a huge plus. I have OUT OF THE EASY on my shelf and will start with that one, and hopefully one day move on to this book. Lovely review.

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  16. I've seen so many reviews praising this novel but I don't think I could ever pick it up. I'd be a sobbing mess I'm sure. Lovely review. :)

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  17. It's funny, I absolutely love history, but I tend to stay away from historical novels because they never really work for me. The Boy in Striped Pyjamas is the only one I can remember actually connecting with; it had such a sad ending too. I know quite a bit about Stalin's Russia because we've covered Russia quite extensively at school, and I still don't know if I really want to read this, even after seeing countless raving reviews. Maybe someday. Still, I'm glad this one affected you so much. Beautiful review, Keertana. :)

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  18. I read this when it first came out and I was surprised. I didn't know what it was about and I really loved it too! I also know what you meant by the ending. I was thinking it would be more gut wrenching, but it does stay with you. I do think it is perfect for those that shy away from these kind of books because of that reason. Brilly review. I agree! :)

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  19. I can't believe I've had this book since before it came out and STILL haven't read it. I need to fix that. Thanks for the heartfelt review!

    Marlene Detierro (San Antonio SEO)

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