I grew up with a vague understanding of what had happened to my grandmother’s family in Lithuania during World War II. I knew about the deportations, the cattle cars, the labor camps, the huts they built out of scavenged materials to protect themselves from the Siberian cold.
I knew my great-grandparents had perished there, but the whole business of Siberia had always been a kind of abstract tragedy, cloaked behind the lyric prose so characteristic of my people, its brutal details fused together under the penumbra of a single, sorrowful word – Sibiras. But it’s only now, after reading Ruta Sepetys’ best selling novel, Between Shades of Gray, that I begin to fathom the details, imagine their sufferings, and understand their quiet grace.
As much as I wanted to read it, I was reluctant to pick this book up at first. I knew it would be emotionally challenging and I was afraid there would be too many parts I’d have to read with my eyes closed. But once I started, I couldn’t put it down – and I don’t remember the last time that’s happened. I read Between Shades of Gray in one sitting, and when I reached the last word, I closed my eyes and sat very still, the way you do during the ending credits of a movie that’s moved you to your core.
Between Shades of Gray is the story of a Lithuanian art student – Lina Vilkas – and her struggle to survive in conditions that just keep getting worse after she is abducted one night along with her mother and younger brother during Stalin’s Purge – the mass deportations of thousands of Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians and Finns to prisons and slave labor camps in Siberia in June of 1944.
Intended for a YA readership, the story is told in short, straightforward prose, though it’s anything but simple, and deals bluntly with the gray ethics and stark reality of war. The details and imagery are so deftly rendered that even when they are unbearable, it’s not possible to look away. Despite the heavy subject matter, there is nothing cloying or overly sentimental about the way Lina tells her riveting tale.
That’s what makes it so good.
In a feisty, compelling, and believable voice, the fictional character of Lina Vilkas speaks for thousand of real people who were silenced or frightened into silence, and whose tragedy has been largely unknown to the world.
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