Between Shades of Gray

By Ruta Sepetys

Book CoverI 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.

—Anna

Out of the Easy

By Ruta Sepetys

Book CoverThis book is so good, you guys! You know when you read a string of pretty good books, and you’re happy enough with them, but then you read a really good book and all of a sudden those other books really pale in comparison? That’s how I feel right now: I don’t redact anything I said about Girl of Nightmares and Being Henry David, but I maybe don’t recommend them quite so highly anymore. I definitely recommend Out of the Easy, though.

It starts out fairly light but very engaging, introducing Josie, the daughter of a prostitute in 1950s New Orleans trying to escape the lifestyle she was born into. A wealthy man that she meets in the bookstore she helps run is found dead later than night, and the book is ostensibly about the investigation into the suspicious circumstances. As the book progresses, though, the mystery takes the backseat while it focuses more on Josie’s desperate attempts to improve her circumstances. This is not a criticism at all, though, because Josie, the world around her, the people in her life (including madams, prostitutes, johns, and gangsters) are fascinating, and her struggles are heartbreaking and gripping.

—Anna