The darkest shade of gray

Review of the book "Between Shades of Gray"

Author’s novel successfully explores Great Purge

Between Shades of Gray is a New York Times Bestseller. This is the debut novel of American novelist Ruta Sepetys. Photo Courtesy of Ruta Sepetys

“Between Shades of Gray” is an impactful and emotional story of Lina Vilkas and her family who are dragged out of their home to be labor slaves for the Soviets. They are one of many families who fight for survival and struggle to maintain hope. During the Soviet Union’s occupation of the Baltic states, including Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, many lives were damaged as the Soviets began to deport people deemed as anti-Soviets starting on June 14, 1941. The deportations are also known as the “Great Purge.”

Ruta Sepetys, the author, wonderfully captures the horrors of the “Great Purge” and what a family might have endured at the time. Sepetys is a Lithuanian-American author, who is internationally acclaimed in historical fiction. She is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee.

She writes about Baltic states that were caught between the Soviet and Nazi empires, wanting to encapsulate others’ stories and retell them in “Between Shades of Gray.” Though Lina Vilkas is a fictional character, much of the book is based on other families’ experiences as Sepetys traveled to Lithuania for research.

Sepetys brings the emotion of a 15 year old to life as readers embark on this horrific journey with Lina as she discovers why her family is going through torment. The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, known as NKVD, were a Soviet secret police organization responsible for political repression and carried out the Great Purge. Readers first realize many NKVD officers are emotionless human beings when the truck transporting Lina and others are at a hospital waiting to shove a mother and her child into the vehicle to be deported as well. The details paints a vivid image as Lina describes the mother dripping blood as the doctor begs one of the NKVD officers to let the child stay since it will not survive.

Sepetys unearthed the memories of those who experienced the unjust actions of the Soviets. She describes the train cars Lina and her family were transported on as cattle cars with the smell of sweat, urine and feces radiating and empowering with the heat trapped inside. With only one hole in the ground, it is both their fresh air and bathroom hole. Each detail gives a graphic image of what Lithuanians and so many others had to endure during the Great Purge.

Ruta Sepetys is a Lithuanian-American writer of historical fiction. Between Shades of Gray is Sepetys’ debut novel. Photo courtesy of Starowieyska Magda

Sepetys beautifully embraces the dark topic in “Between Shades of Gray,” yet keeps the young adult problems many readers face. Throughout the book there are several flashbacks. One in particular reminds the readers that Lina is a teenager. The flashback is of Lina and her cousin who are about to go on a double date. It failed when Lina discovered her date has his arms wrapped around another girl. Scenes like this remind the readers that a 15 year old is dealing with survival, hunger, lice and death.

One character radiates with hope and encouraging thoughts during the dark times depicted such as the “Great Purge.” Sepetys decided Lina’s mother, Elena, would be the beacon of hope. She constantly shows kindness and love to those who may not even deserve it. Sepetys reminds the reader with Elena that “whether love of a friend, love of a country, love of God, or even love of enemy – love reveals to us the truly miraculous nature of the human spirit.”

“Between Shades of Gray” will bring you along on an emotional ride that will have you connecting with the characters and heartbroken when there is death among the family.

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