We all know about the atrocities of the Holocaust, but until I decided to read Ruta Sepetys’ novel Between Shades of Gray with my grade nine class I knew nothing (shamefully) about what happened in Lithuania during the same time period. During that time Stalin’s Soviet Union invaded the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. They rounded up doctors, teachers, musicians, artists and government officials and their families – anyone whom they considered a threat – and shipped them off to work camps. Sepetys’ father was the son of a Lithuanian military officer. He and his family managed to escape to a German refugee camp (the irony is not lost on me). It is the author’s personal connection to this devastating blot on human history that inspired her to tackle telling the story. And what a story it is!
Lina is just fifteen when the NKVD (Russian Secret Police) burst into her home and demand that she, her ten-year-old brother, Jonas, and their mother, pack a suitcase and come with them. It is June 14, 1941 and the world Lina has known – one of art and intellect, of safety and family – is forever shattered. Their father is not home.
The first question I asked my students when we started the book was what they would take if they only had twenty minutes to decide. Lina was getting ready for bed and she remarks “They took me in my nightgown.” What is important when you have no time to think?
I put on my sandals and grabbed two books, hair ribbons and my hairbrush. Where was my sketchbook? I took the writing tablet, the case of pens and pencils and the bundle of rubles off my desk and placed them amongst the heap of items we had thrown into my case.
From the minute Between Shades of Gray starts until the final pages, the reader is living in a world that is almost impossible to comprehend. My students have no frame of reference. Even those who do not live privileged lives have never had to face this kind of terror. As I read the book out loud to my rapt students, I often found myself on the verge of tears imagining the fear, pain and plight of these people who were forced from their homes for no reason. What would I be capable of if I had to protect my family?
Lina’s mother, Elena, is a remarkable character. She is an educated woman who speaks Russian, a handy skill in these circumstances. She does whatever she has to do in an effort to keep her family together, trading items she has sewn into her coat in advance (foreshadowing the events to come) for food, favour and, in one particularly poignant trade, for the life of her son. Her strength of character, her resiliency (which is mirrored in her children) sustains them all through the long, hard days ahead.
Eventually Lina and her family find themselves at a labour camp in Siberia. I can remember joking about Siberian labour camps as a kid. I didn’t know anything about them; I would have just made a throwaway comment about sending someone to Siberia. Sheer ignorance on my part because the conditions are unimaginable.
It was completely uninhabited, not a single bush or tree, just barren dirt to a shore of endless water. We were surrounded by nothing but polar tundra and the Laptev Sea. The wind whipped. Sand blew into my mouth and stung my eyes.
Worse – they have nowhere to live. The only two buildings are for the Soviets. It’s cold and soon it will be dark 24 hours a day.
I can say this about the book: my students loved it. Although I had promised to read it out loud to them, many read on their own, racing to finish. That’s high praise, especially since many of students would identify themselves as reluctant readers. I had several boys finish way before we did.
Sepetys talks about her novel here and it’s worth watching the video before you read the book. Sepetys talked to survivors and some of their stories find their way into this novel. I wish that the ending hadn’t seemed quite so rushed, but that’s a small niggle and may have something to do with the fact that I wasn’t quite ready to say good bye to these remarkable characters. Overall, Between Shades of Gray is a miracle of a book, a life-affirming novel of resiliency and love and a sober reminder of the terrible things we do to each other.