By Ruta Sepetys
I enjoyed Out of the Easy so much that I quickly checked out Sepetys’ first novel, Between Shades of Gray. By a horrible coincidence, it was actually released on the very same day as Fifty Shades of Grey, and so a wonderful and very worthwhile read got buried in the ensuing mania. They couldn’t be more different, either. Seriously.
Between Shades of Gray is a fictional but historically-based story of a Lithuanian family arrested by the Russian police under Stalin’s occupation of the Baltic countries and deported to work camps in the Arctic. Russia’s treatment of these political prisoners (artists and academics charged with “anti-Soviet” activity, among others) was only marginally better than the German’s treatment of theirs, and ultimately resulted in the death of about a third of the populations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, as well as the disappearance of the countries themselves for decades.
The novel is narrated by Lina, a fifteen-year-old girl, who is arrested, with her mother and younger brother, on the first page of the book. For the rest of the book, and for over a year, they are driven across the entire Asian continent to a work camp in the North Pole. It is a very personal look through the eyes of a single girl, and is both heart-breaking and inspiring all at once, and impossible to put down. Lina and her story feel very real, which is a testament to the amount of research Sepetys put into it.
Sepetys dedicates the book to her father, a Lithuanian refugee who escaped the gulags with his family as a child, but left many family members behind to be imprisoned and deported. She traveled to Lithuania to interview family members and many other survivors and composites their stories in this novel. In the afterward, she writes that she wanted to bring awareness to the horrors that got overshadowed by even worse atrocities committed in World War II, and it just kills me that this book promptly got overshadowed by escapist erotica. (Although, actually, the author herself kind of appreciates the confusion because it is introducing new, initially confused readers to the issues of the Baltic genocides.)
On a brief personal note, this week has been a bit trying. We got 7 inches of snow, and I had to shovel my driveway three different days, and load and unload firewood. I hated every minute of it, and then felt especially spoiled since this was exactly the kind of “lighter” work given to the children in the work camps for days in sub-zero conditions on food rations of 3 grams of stale bread a day.
Oooh, this sounds a little like The Endless Steppe, about a Russian family who gets sent to Siberia. Did you ever read that? I loved it when I was a kid, but I’m not sure I have a strong enough heart to read it now.
I have not read The Endless Steppe or even heard of it, but I may need to check it out, as well. I had a vague idea that things weren’t great in Russia during WWII (“we will choke you with our dead” and all that), but I had no idea that they were quite this bad, and I do think it is important to get at least rudimentary awareness of things like this.
I was actually reading Between Shades of Gray over The Olympics, and it definitely shaded the opening ceremony’s historical montage for me.