by Ruta Sepetys
Synopsis: 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.
My Review: I have read several historical fiction books covering aspects of WWII, but never one that covers Stalin’s persecution of the Baltic states. In fact, even though I knew that he had annexed these areas, I had no idea that so many people had been illegally imprisoned or killed.
The story begins in 1941 when Lina Vilkas is fifteen and excited about her future as an artist. She has just been accepted into a prestigious art program. Stalin’s annextion of her home country of Lithuania is a fact, although the actual takeover is not part of this story. The family is living happily until the moment their home is invaded by the NKVD and they are dragged away in the middle of the night. Along with her mother and brother, Lina is condemned as an enemy of the Soviet state. They’re forced onto a train that makes a long, horrendous journey to Siberia, where many of the arrested die along the way. Through her artwork, Lina tries to make contact with her father. She draws everything and hides her art so it will not be found. Her emotions pour out into her work and the descriptions are wonderful. Lina is strong and willful. She refuses to die and give up anything to the Soviets. She even finds love along the way. The Soviets tried to take everything from her life, but they can’t break her. It is truly humbling to read the accounts of the atrocities that occurred during this campaign. The fact that these people never gave up and some eventually returned to their home countries is mind blowing. The will to live is a powerful thing.
This is a book of Historical Fiction, although to write this book, Ruta Sepetys met with people who had survived the deportations and their family members, as well as historians and government officials. She also listed books she used for some of her research. The impetus for her was her father’s family who were caught up in the deportations. Make sure to read the author’s note at the end of the book. 4.5 stars rounded up to 5.