Written by Ruta Sepetys
Published March, 2011 by Philomel Books
Genres: Real Events, War
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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.
I enjoyed Between Shades of Gray, but despite it being very well-researched by the author, I couldn’t find myself becoming emotionally attached to the characters or the story, which held me back. Despite it’s high rating on Goodreads, I must admit that unfortunately, I’ve read better history-based fiction for young adults.
I must say, for the most part of this book I was considering giving it an ‘okay’ rating of 3-stars. While Between Shades of Gray deals with the horrific and true tale of a family of Lithuanians deported during the second World War, I didn’t feel as attached to the characters as I would have liked. When gruesome things were told, or people killed, I didn’t find myself shocked. Somehow the emotional attachment to this book wasn’t there, and it stopped me from being as hard-hit as I have been with other true-history stories.
This carried on for the first 3/4 of the book. While I don’t think Ruta Sepetys was ‘trying’ to be shocking (these things really did happen), I just felt unaffected. I think that’s what held me back from giving this book a higher rating. I wanted to feel the sadness, I wanted to feel hurt and emotionally wrecked… I just didn’t.
I liked the relationship between Andrius and Lina, and although I understand this is primarily a tale of hope and survival, I think a little more focus on their ‘love story’ would’ve touched the readers (myself, especially). I would’ve liked to see them reunited, also, rather than the jar of letters and documents in the epilogue.
Regarding the epilogue, it was a nice way to end things but I wanted Lina’s story in Siberia to come a little more full circle. After all the storyline we had regarding the beet farm, it felt like we deserved a porthole into her family’s escape and reunion. Did her father survive? Did she rejoin her cousins in Germany… or? I would’ve liked to learn how they were liberated in Siberia, too. There were just so many things left unanswered.
Ruta Sepetys did a good job, but I was expecting more after seeing so many stellar reviews. I felt like I could have been more touched by Between Shades of Gray than I was. I wanted to be left thinking of Lina’s story long after reading it, but I fear I’ll quickly move onto the next book in my pile. Ruta Sepetys has clearly done a LOT of research, and as a reader I can appreciate this, but Lina’s story felt incomplete to me.
Also as a sidenote, I felt a little annoyed in some points of the story that Ruta Sepetys’ American heritage leaked into a story set in Europe. At one stage Lina askes Andrius ‘How is your mom?’. It just rubbed me the wrong way, when all throughout the story they referred to their mothers as ‘mother’. Maybe it’s just me?
Recommended to: Between Shades of Gray is worth a read if you’re interested in history-based stories and the topic in general, but if you’re a seasoned reader of the genre, you might find a few little annoyances.