Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, 338 pp, RL
Linda Sue Park (Newbery Winner for A Single Shard) wrote a first-class review of between shades of gray by Ruta Sepetys for the New York Times Book Review in April of 2011 in which she very accurately called the book a "superlative first novel." For a coherent, concise review, follow the link and read more of what Park had to say. I'm not sure I can do this book justice because I was so deeply moved and impressed by it, especially because it is exactly the kind of book I usually avoid. While I love historical fiction, I confess that I avoid books about the more horrific, inhuman periods from our past and present. I will also confess to an embarrassingly small amount of knowledge about the atrocities committed by Stalin during his long reign. I was shocked to learn that, while Hitler was persecuting and murdering Jews, Stalin was purging Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Finland of anyone he perceived to be a threat to his power. Yet, in spite of the intensity of the subject matter, once I started reading between shades of gray I could not put it down. While at work, I kept a copy nearby so I could read a few more of the short but powerful chapters any chance I got. Despite the brutality and horrors suffered by the main character and narrator Lina Vilkas, her voice was one that stayed with me and I could not put the book down until I knew her fate. As a writer, Sepetys is able to bring the reader face to face with human suffering and human cruelty and brutality while also holding the reader gently, assuring her/him that nature, which is right and true, will out in the end. As she has said, while writing this book she wanted to know "what it takes to bear the unbearable." I was also helped along while reading this book by my teenage son happened to be finishing up Simon Sebag Montefiore's Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar at the same time I was reading between shades of gray. He could answer questions I had about this period, most of which began, "Did Stalin really. . . ?"
Although this book is considered Young Adult (teen) I think it is appropriate for middle school aged readers, especially since this seems to be the time that many children begin to develop an interest in the Holocaust and Hitler. While Stalin's crimes against humanity rival Hitler's, it seems that they receive less scrutiny, in the United States, anyway. between shades of gray will undoubtedly start conversations and inspire research on the part of readers, which is a very good thing. If, after reading this review, Sepety's book seems like too much for your young reader but you would like him/her to begin to explore this period of history, look to Eugene Yelchin's stunning Breaking Stalin's Nose, winner of the Newbery Honor this year, which is a must read. Told from the perspective of a young Muscovite follower of Stalin, Yelchin does a phenomenal job, through his story and illustrations, of recreating the false sense of righteousness that went side-by-side with the constant fear Russians lived with under Stalin's rule. And, amazingly, Yelchin makes this completely graspable for young readers.
between shades of gray begins with two maps showing the great distance Lina and her family traveled, one an overview, the other more detailed, with locations and dates for the various camps they were held in. The story that sixteen year old Lina tells charts her family's path from a middle-class home in Lithuania with a professor father and acceptance to a prestigious art school on the horizon to a gulag in the Arctic Circle. Sepetys creates detailed characters who, seen through the evolving eyes of Lina, are recognized for their complexities as her perceptions and understanding of them shifts. Lina is an artist and finds ways to draw what she sees over the course of her family's 440 day imprisonment, even if the drawings are hideous. She hides her drawings from the NKVD and, even after liberation she continues to hide her experiences in the same way that the real victims of Stalin did for decades until, in 1990 with the fall of the Soviet Union, their countries reappeared. Sepetys talks of this experience and the people she interviewed while extensively researching this book, including family members, in her author's note. In fact, Sepetys joined a Lithuanian film crew that had arranged to spend 24 hours in an abandoned gulag in Lithuania and be treated as the prisoners were. To hear her talk of this simulated experience is chilling. I can't imagine hearing stories of this kind of brutal, inhumane treatement first hand. This intensity of these experiences comes through in Sepetys's writing. In her review of between shades of gray for the Guardian in 2011, Linda Buckley-Archer, author of the brilliant Time Quake Trilogy, spoke to this, noting that the "storyteller who wishes to bring such a past to life, 'make it real' by fictionalizing it, clearly shoulders an immense responsibility. Sepetys draws heavily on heartbreaking testimony of survivors. She must have faced some tough narrative choices. Is it your duty, for example, when writing for a teenage audience, to sift through the cinders of such a hell to find meaning and consolation in some form? For Spetys love certainly redeems: love of country, love of family, love of a fellow survivor. And it is in the small gestures that it finds its expression: beet smuggled in underwear under the gaze of guards, sharing rations with strangers, asking the name of one's tormentor."
In the end, I think it is Speteys's remarkable ability to enrich the horrible world of the gulag with small details and gestures that, minute as they are, do represent a love that redeems, that make this book what it is. I had the honor of hearing Ruta Sepetys speak at the SCBWI LA conference and it was a very powerful experience. She is an amazing speaker - eloquent, elegant, impassioned, vibrant and so friendly. She's the kind of person you just want to hug when you see her. This has not been one of the better reviews I have written, perhaps because this book affected me so deeply and I want to much for everyone to read it, for schools to teach it, for adults and kids to embrace it, that I am having a hard time creating a respectable review. As I said at the start, please, please read Linda Sue Park and/or Linda Archer-Buckley's reviews of between shades of gray for proper, concise reviews. Or, take my rambling words for it and go buy the book, which is available in PAPERBACK!