Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Amidst all the discussion of darkness in young adult fiction, here is a book that tackles difficult subjects and certainly contains elements of darkness but that I would recommend highly. It is not that Between Shades of Gray is a job to read, in many ways it is not, but it is important to read and deal with the history it so eloquently portrays. It covers events that many in the world would just soon forget but in the process helps us remember what really matters.

Here is the publishers description:

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.

Obviously, concentration camps and atrocities make for uneasy reading. And they are not the subject of easy conversations with young people. Even adults have a hard time getting their heads around the level of violence and ofter prefer not to think about the depths humans can sink to. But Sepetys has managed to walk that fine line between over-playing the violence and degradation and humanizing it to the extent it loses its power to revolt us and force us to think about its implication. This is a story with appealing and deep characters and an emotional strength despite its difficult subject.

There is an attractive side to the horrors man commits against man – the integrity, devotion and love shown in the most ugly of circumstances. The Vilkas family has done nothing wrong and yet they are separated and shipped off to work/death camps; treated as less than human for no other reason than their nationality. But they find a way to hold on to love and hope; to show compassion and to learn to love others even in the filth and pain of their circumstances.

Lina uses her art to process what she is experiencing; to try and makes sense of the world and record it for posterity. She is forced to mature beyond her years but she finds a way to see the kernal of humanity despite the brutality.

Am not usually one to offer literature as didacticism but this story is a powerful way for adults and young adults to conceptualize and begin to understand the monstrous tragedies Stalin perpetrated and at the same time the incredible ability of humans to survive and the importance of what are too often abstractions: love, truth and freedom.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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