Genre: Historical Fiction/War/Young Adult
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.
What I liked:
1. The POV. This is the first WWII novel I have come to read that is not centered on the plight of Jews during Hitler’s regime (which just reminds me again that I must not call myself a well-read person). It gave me a glimpse of the side of war that I have not paid close attention to before: the struggles of the lesser known European countries during Stalin’s rule. One will have to read this novel with a lump in their throat. From the first page to the last, there were suffering and misery and death. There were moments of hope, too, sneaking in and out of their gray days. But as with all wars, nobody truly wins in the end.
The POV from a teenage Lithuanian girl is also a welcome take. And the use of art (drawing) to reveal the truth and to connect with others is powerful move. I find the bittersweet flashbacks of Lina’s family life before the war a breather. It reminded me of the real humans before they were turned into a walking ghost.
2. The characters. Each individual is a gem, from the likeable to the unlikeable. The characterization felt real and I found it easy to jump from one shoe to another. It was an emotional rollercoaster living the lives of these characters. Their pain, frustration, fear, anger, madness — I felt it all. The only thing that felt distant to me is their resilience (perhaps reading the book in these anxious times made it so).
3. The writing style. For such a serious subject, Between Shades Of Gray is a very easy read. I love how Sepetys made sure that young adults will not only find the book interesting but also educational.
What I didn’t like:
None. But I hate the fact that although this is a fiction, a lot of parallel events happened in real life. And is still happening to this day.
Some readers might disagree but I am satisfied with how the novel ended. The story jumped 20 years in the end, leaving it up to us, the reader, to imagine their journey before attaining “peace.” I believe Sepetys made it as realistic as possible by not narrating the brief moment of respite in the lives of Lina, Jonas and Andrius . It was hard to imagine what they went through. And, like how I felt in Danielle Steel’s Echoes, most people during wartime don’t get to have closure.
“We’d been trying to touch the sky from the bottom of the ocean. I realized that if we boosted one another, maybe we’d get a little closer.”
“Was it harder to die, or harder to be the one who survived?”
“Sometimes there is such beauty in awkwardness. There’s love and emotion trying to express itself, but at the time, it just ends up being awkward.”
“You stand for what is right, Lina, without the expectation of gratitude or reward.”
“What was life asking of me? How could I respond when I didn’t know the question?”
“I felt as if I were riding a pendulum. Just as I would swing into the abyss of hopelessness, the pendulum would swing back with some small goodness.”
I still find it hard to wrap around my thoughts about this novel. It is a very interesting read and an emotional one. So I’m sharing an excerpt from the author’s note instead:
It is estimated that Josef Stalin killed more than twenty million people during his reign of terror. The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia lost more than a third of their population during the Soviet genocide. The deportations reached as far as Finland. To this day, many Russians deny they ever deported a single person.
Some wars are about bombing. For the people of the Baltics, this war was about believing. In 1991, after fifty years of brutal occupation, the three Baltic countries regained their independence, peacefully and with dignity. They chose hope over hate and showed the world that even through the darkest night, there is light. Please research it. Tell someone. These three tiny nations have taught us that love is the most powerful army. Whether love of friend, love of country, love of God, or even love of enemy—love reveals to us the truly miraculous nature of the human spirit.