Lina Vilkas is a 15 year old Lithuanian girl when she is deported, with her mother and brother, to Siberia on a cattle truck. Her father is split up from them and sent elsewhere. She and her fellow passengers endure a horrendous journey across Europe and into the Arctic Circle. People die along the way, and only the strongest will survive.
Lina tells the story of the journey and life in the camps they end up in, and she does it in a matter of fact sort of way, but which never shields the reader from the horrors she endures. The fact that we know it's based on real life events makes it all the more shocking.
Between Shades of Gray is an absolutely brilliant read. It's very well-written and is a moving tale of survival against the odds. The author's note at the end is very interesting too. I certainly never realised what people from the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had to endure in the 1940s and 50s.
I would definitely recommend this book as an excellent read and a compelling story. The chapters are very short, which made reading just one more very easy. This is a triumphant first novel from Ruta Sepetys.
In 1939, Stalin occupied the Baltic States and by 1941 he deported those he thought threatened his empire, namely academics. This story, fictionalised but based on real documents, focused on the Vilkas family, a mother and her two children, Lina 15 and Jonas 10 - the father already having been taken. This story follows their deportation to labour camps inside Siberia and then on to an area close to the North Pole. The story is told simply, with no frills, of how they survived during the terrible conditions. It is written by Lina who was an artist and sketched their life in pictures at great risk to herself and family, in the hope they would be discovered at a later time.
I gave this 4 stars as I would have liked to know how their story ended as opposed to documents being discovered as late as 1991 (when of course the Baltic countries were made independent). I would like to know how she left the camps and made a life for herself. But apart from that, it is a well written book that leaves you feeling aghast at how people eked out an existence during these terrible times.
I first heard of Between Shades of Gray during the summer of 2010, and knew immediately after reading the summary that I would like it. Anything set during WWII automatically makes its way onto my bookshelf, and I usually end up loving it. Prime examples are The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Once by Morris Gleitzman and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, which are all brilliant and are on my list of books I never stop talking about. Between Shades of Gray is now also on that list, and I haven't stopped recommending it since I read it. As a debut novel, it's outstanding, and as a piece of WWII literature, it's honest, important and long overdue.
Between Shades of Gray chronicles the life of 15-year-old Lina and her family, who are deported from Lithuania to Siberia at the top of the Arctic Circle. In all my years of personal WWII research, through reading YA and adult fiction and watching numerous films and TV shows, I've never come across anything to do with the Baltic States and their involvement in the war. I don't think it's a story that has been focused on or told much, which is why I think Ruta's book is so significant. I'm almost 24 years old, and until a couple of weeks ago I had no idea that Lithuanian people went through what they did at the hands of the Soviets, and being introduced to this part of the war was like discovering an untold story that has been buried for years.
As I'm sure you can imagine, most of the NKVD officers who travelled with Lina and her fellow prisoners were horrible human beings. They had no qualms with killing or hurting adults and children in their charge, and often saw it as a funny game. They were there to do a job, and subsequently treated the deportees as nothing more than an object that needed to be moved from one place to another. At times their actions were genuinely hard to read about and, as the novel progressed, I found myself dreading what I knew was going to inevitably happen. Unspeakable evil took place in all factions of the Second World War, and no matter how much I see or read, it never gets easier to imagine.
Ruta wrote this book as a work of fiction, but did extensive research beforehand which led to many real-life survivor's stories being interspersed with Lina's fictional account. Knowing that before I read the book made it even more heartbreaking and eye-opening, as the whole time I was wondering which scene actually happened and which poor person really did lose their life to the Soviets. It made it all the more real knowing that the story was grounded in so much truth and reality, and I think the Latvian heritage has been preserved with an enormous amount of respect. The memory of the millions of people involved in this war, and those wars before and after, deserves nothing less, and I'm really glad Ruta told this story in the way she did.
I knew Between Shades of Gray would reduce me to a sobbing mess - I knew that before I even read one single page - but I wasn't prepared for it to affect me the way it has. It's become one of those books that has engrained itself in my mind and one that, so far, I find myself coming back to at regular intervals. If every school library doesn't have a copy of this on their shelves, it will be nothing short of a crime against all that the education system stands for. It's a hopeful story that needs to be read, absorbed and passed on but, most importantly, it's a story that needs to be remembered and talked about for many years to come.
Lina lives a happy life in Lithuania, the daughter of a university professor she enjoys life as any teenager her age would at that time. But now Stalin has annexed Lithuania and all people who pose any kind of threat to his regime must be dealt with. Lina, her brother and Mother are woken one night by Soviet Guards, put into cattle cars on a train as their lives as they knew them will never be the same again.
This is a beautifully written story and I defy anyone not too need tissues at the ready by the end. The subject matter is bleak, undeniably, but there is such strength and hope held within the book too. Although the conditions within the work camps in Siberia are horrific and described as such, the focus within the book is on how people will band together and help each other, even when they have very little themselves. A book such as this could have quite easily focused on the darker side of human nature, yet here you are even left feeling some level of sympathy for one of the guards in the camp. The quality of the writing really brings the story alive and it is very obvious that a huge amount of research was done in writing the book, as it feels very real.
Lina is a really strong central character. She is very real and hasn't been romanticised in any way. She is far from perfect and doesn't always do the right thing. This only serves to make her more believable.
The only aspect that I found slightly disappointing was the ending. The theme of hope is carried through right to the end and the ending does give the reader hope that there is life at the end of the tunnel for these characters. I don't feel that the epilogue was needed though. Those two pages on their own raised questions that I wanted answering, questions I wouldn't have had had it not been included. I don't know if there are plans for a second book, if there are it could explain the epilogues inclusion.
Verdict: Haunting and beautifully written. A bleak book that at the same time highlights the better side of human nature.