Published: March 22, 2011
Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they’ve known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin’s orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions.
Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously–and at great risk–documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father’s prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives. Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.
“They took me in my nightgown.” The opening sentence of this superlative first novel by Ruta Sepetys demonstrates the strength of its unembellished language. Thus, 15-year-old Lina Vilkas, along with her mother and younger brother, is deported from her Lithuanian home by the Soviet secret police in 1941, and begins a cattle-car journey through a series of forced-labor camps that will span 12 years and 6,500 miles.
Apart from a few overly dramatic metaphors, Lina recounts her story with a straightforward clarity that trusts readers to summon images of starvation, disease and death, and grounds them in a reality young adults can understand.
As expected in Y.A. fiction, Lina has both a love interest and a special skill. Her relationship with another refugee is one of attraction amid desperation, their physical desire tamped down only by the limits of their emaciated, louse-ridden bodies. Lina’s talent for drawing likewise plays a role: in her attempts to get a coded message to her father; in the assignments she is given by her Soviet captors for map-copying and portraiture; in the flashbacks to her life as a promising art student.
The book does not lead us through the entire twelve years of the horrible conditions at the labor camp but does give us a glimpse into the life she had after being freed, and for that I was grateful. Parts were very heart-wrenching and seemed almost to horrible to have really happened .
I truly enjoyed this book but not as much as her second book, Salt to the Sea, which I rated FIVE STARS and think everyone should read. This one too, will leave you thinking for some time to come.