You may ask how a woman born and raised in Michigan could write so intimately and thoroughly from the perspective of a 15 year old girl trapped in the maelstrom that was the Soviet Union during World War II, but after reading her first novel, Between Shades of Gray, you would think that the author lived and breathed every moment of this harrowing yet inspiring tale.
The daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, Ruta Sepetys follows the path taken by the legendary Stephen Crane, who wrote Red Badge of Courage without ever having stepped foot on a Civil War battlefield. In both cases these enormously talented writers did research (Sepetys also visited Lithuania several times) and then let their craft guide them to creating indelible portraits of people caught up in the incongruity of war.
While some readers will classify this as a young adult book, it seems clear that someone from any age group would be moved and astounded by this tale of Lina Vilkas, a girl whose first person account chronicles the events of the unwarranted arrest of her family in Lithuania and subsequent deportation – a journey of horror to the far reaches of Siberia.
This was a time of war – a moment when Joseph Stalin chose to deport millions of people and basically wanted to eliminate the Baltic States (Lithuania and Latvia and Estonia) for military purposes. Thus Lina, her brother Jonas, and her mother Elena are thrown into a train car with a group of about 30 shocked and frightened people. Some of them suspect the worst, but Lina and her mother try to do whatever they can to bolster the spirits of the others and help them get through this ordeal.
One terrifying scene involves a young woman named Ona, who has just given birth to a baby girl. The child is literally ripped from Ona’s womb for the sake of expediency. With blood pouring out of her body, Ona is thrown in with the group and her child is shoved into her arms as they are evacuated. Lina describes the moment: “The child let out a soft cry and its tiny fists pummeled the air. Its fight for life had begun.”
That is what this story is mostly about – individuals fighting to live, a battle to survive under grueling and inhumane circumstances. To the NKVD (the secret police who arrest them) and later the soldiers who supervise their journey, each person in that train car is considered nothing more than Stalin’s chattel. Those males who are able bodied are taken from the group and sent off to work someplace, the soldiers getting a kickback. The women, children, and old men are kept on the train, bound for the austere and unforgiving landscape of Siberia where the fight for life will be a daily struggle.
Lina’s mother keeps hoping to get a letter to her husband Kostas, a university professor who had been taken separately. Eventually they learn he is in a prison, and through flashbacks we get to understand the ideal life Lina had once lived and how much she loved her father. In that normal world she worried about school work, boys, and longed to go out for an ice cream; now she just hopes for a bucket of gruel and a chance to survive.
Sepetys is a strong but patient writer, and what she does extremely well here is to avoid the sensational or overly dramatic. The greatest impact of events depicted is that the brutality becomes so commonplace, such a subtle but pernicious part of daily life, and as she weaves each atrocity into the story, she is purposely not preparing us and thus there is no way to expect the trauma of each given moment, and every character – even the main ones whom the reader grows to love – is in danger of dying from a disease or getting shot in the head.
Despite the generally dismal nature of the story, there are moments of human spirit and glimmers of hope that thread their way throughout. The people of the group form such a cohesive unit and look out for one another, especially those loved ones who are left behind when one of them is suddenly eliminated. During quiet interludes, they try to find some joy where they can – a beautiful sunset, a day without work, or the sharing of personal stories to remind everyone of good times.
Mostly they are under duress and constantly threatened by their overseers. Everyone in that train car is forced to work long hours performing grueling tasks, and we find Lina and her family members being worked to the point of beyond being tired – almost like a living death.
I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t speak. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw Papa’s face, battered, and peering down from the bathroom hole on the train. Courage, Lina, he said to me. Exhaustion and grief inched heavily into every fiber of my body, yet I was wide awake. My mind flickered as if on short circuit, spitting never-ending images of anxiety, anguish, and sorrow at me.
As the train continues on the route, the passengers make stops along the way. These places are labor camps where they are forced to work in difficult and dangerous conditions and live no better than animals in a barn. While they fend for themselves to scavenge for scraps of food, wood, and clothing, there are times when they come together, such as on Christmas Eve, and celebrate despite the dire circumstances they face.
In the end this book is testimony not only to the horrors imposed by Stalin’s Soviet Union on innocent civilians, but also reveals the dignity of the human spirit that survives and even flourishes no matter how much sinister forces attempt to extinguish it.
I came to read this book because my daughter had it assigned to her in school, and over the years we have a created our own little book club. I enjoy reading and discussing books with her that she gets as an assignment or ones that she reads for pleasure – which is how I got to read all the Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket books.
As I read Between Shades of Gray I sometimes felt shaken by the events; other moments brought me to tears, and the realization hit me that Lina, a girl not much older than my daughter, should have never lost her teenage years in such a horrific way. Still, her strength and courage and willingness to fight against overwhelming odds are inspiring and unforgettable.
Though categorized as a young adult book, I highly recommend Between Shades of Gray to readers of all ages who have an interest in war stories and tales of the resilience of human beings during the most arduous of circumstances. If you like a book that compels you to keep reading and then feel a lasting impact upon finishing it, then this is the book for you.
Photo Credits: betweenshadesofgray.com