Between Shades of Gray
by Ruta Sepetys
What else is there to say but echo the sentiment everyone else is expressing for Between Shades of Gray? If you’ve been listening in on all the hype that surrounded this book prior to release, you’d know it focuses on the plight of innocent Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians affected by the Stalin regime during World War II. And if you had been just as denied any knowledge of their struggles, you would have thought, huh?
I think it’s a shame that not a sliver of their past is studied in schools (for that is where we go for a thing called History Class), but curriculum is so skewed and selected that young people miss out on very important issues. I remember reading in high school, when on the subject of Stalin, that he took over the countries in the Baltic region…a mention, no more than a footnote. We hardly learn about our own contributions during the War here in Canada, what were the chances my teachers were going to tell us about these people? So, you’ve heard the hype, you’ve watched the video on Sepetys’ site and you expect an intense, painful rendering of the life of these forgotten souls. I think Sepetys delivers.
Hers was a major undertaking; a great honor but so much promise to live up to. This isn’t just a fictional story about a young girl who is hauled into a train cart marked thieves and prostitutes one innocent night; who, with her mother and brother is sent to labour camps to work in the mud, the biting cold, the sleeting rain with only a piece of bread and rainwater to relieve her hunger; whose future is stolen away, with no justification except for that a man believes she is a sveenya, a pig. Sepetys has to depict the horror these people experienced, accent the dignity and courage they maintained, all without cowering under emotion and the inevitable urge to spurt too much personal convictions. Because even though you are the writer, you must still keep some distance, no? Let the story tell itself, and in this case, let history be exactly that. She is a translator of forgotten memories; she is merely bringing back what history has misplaced.
This is, if you haven’t guessed yet, a moving story. The suffering here isn’t anything new. We’ve read it in other books, seen them in movies, learned them from documentaries. As crass as this might sound, they’re all the same: people working to the bone, people being shot for being born wrong, people starving, people living in dilapidated conditions, women being raped, children dying off, men being hanged. Inhuman is the word. But what sets this apart is the turning of an extra page we didn’t see before in the book of monstrosity that was WWII. This was a new set of suffering; of broken toys we never knew were stashed away in the attic.
The characters are full and clear and well-loved by me. They have pride, they have guts and what really touches me was how at their weakest, at their moment of almost breaking down, Lina and her friends decide to hold onto that thin thread of spirit; and of endurance. Instead of surrendering, Lina hardens her heart. When in the end, Lina expresses guilt over wanting to live, in the face of so much loss, I just lost it. Hearing her say that she never questioned it once; that surviving was her purpose and home her destination, this amidst death, is a true impression of will.
So, why a slightly less than perfect rating? Well, it’s because despite how much this book had me clutching it to my chest, just as Lina clutches at her drawings, there are several editorial decisions I would’ve changed…so much so that I couldn’t get past it, no matter how much I wanted to. Some minor, and some that I think would’ve changed the weight of the story…perhaps emphasized even strongly the importance of keeping up hope, the role of art within Lina’s journey, and made it even more searing with pain. So its more technical, rather than emotional (although the technical would’ve ultimately affected the emotional). The story I was given satisfied me in the deepest, most craving part of my self. I suppose the real issue with the book is that it’s too short. I saw that I was running out of pages and kept thinking that I was nowhere near ready to let go. But who am I in all of this? Just a lone spectator bowing in apology to any soul who’s ever been overlooked.
Rated 4 out 5 stars