Title: Between Shades of Gray
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Length: 344 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Note: This review is (relatively) spoiler-free. I have included some hidden spoilers in my Goodreads review.
Despite reading the blurb, when I picked this book up at the library, I thought it was a Holocaust novel. It isn’t, though it’s just (or almost) as horrifying.
Between Shades of Gray is the story of fifteen-year-old Lina Vilkas and her upper-middle class Lithuanian family. The year is 1941. Two years earlier, the Soviet Union had annexed the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia). Germany, already at war with Poland, is on the verge of invading the USSR. Though his Great Purge technically ended in 1940, Stalin decides to rid the newest Soviet states of “enemies of communism” as well. Lina, her parents, and her ten-year-old brother Jonas are rounded up in the middle of the night, thrown into cattle cars, and deported to Siberia. Far from home, separated from her father, and in constant fear for her life, Lina desperately tries to keep her family, her passion for art, and perhaps most importantly of all, her hope for the future alive.
My first history class in college was about the Soviet Union. I read a good deal about the horrors of life under Stalin—notably, the excellent book The Whisperers—and know all about Stalin’s purges and the gulags. That said, for the life of me, I cannot remember learning anything about the Baltic purges. Maybe that’s because the class in question was five years ago now (though I took other classes like the History of Eastern Europe and Europe in World War II, and I don’t think this subject was discussed in those, either). As Ruta Sepetys says in her Author’s Note:
The Baltic states…lost more than a third of their population[s] during the Soviet genocide. … To this day, many Russians deny they ever deported a single person.
(I some take issue with the way she phrases this—“many Russians,” “‘they’ deported”—but the fact remains that it’s apparently been swept under the rug, even today, decades afterwards.)
So going forward, despite my nitpicking, let me get this out of the way: I very much believe that this is a momentous and important novel, regardless (or even because of) its intended audience.
The prose isn’t Sepetys’ strong point (Shades is her debut novel and it shows), but I give her credit for style and structure. Maybe her blunt writing—there’s not much lyricism here—is intentional; it certainly reflects the grim subject matter being described. It was a little choppy in places, but it got to the meat of the story, which I suppose was the ultimate point: there was no fluff to hide the stark and appalling reality of the Lithuanians’ situation. It really hits you in the gut and lingers with you after you’ve closed the book. In that way, if in no others, the book is successful. Quite simply, it’s chilling.
That said, I felt like the story—and its intended impact—could have been better served by drawing it out a little. No, it should not have covered the entirety of Lina’s sentence (then it would have felt very rushed). However, this was a quick, if unpleasant, read—one meant to cover almost two years. Those two years probably passed with agonizing slowness for Lina, but they flew by for me, the reader, and gave me little sense of her struggle to survive from one day to the next. At the same time, I realize that there are only so many times someone wants to read (or write) about the same unpleasant situation—working the fields, chopping wood, getting rations, etc., so I’ll give Ms. Sepetys the benefit of the doubt.
My favorite thing about the book was its almost seamless transition from past to present; the flashbacks are clearly defined—indented and italicized—but they’re written in such a way that the present flows very nicely into the past. More importantly, they’re all relevant to the plot. They all actually matter to what’s happening in the story. (This is what I think Gayle Forman was going for in If I Stay but failed to actually accomplish.)
I only have a few other small criticisms:
Though I definitely cared about most of them, the character development seemed a little lacking. Lina had some personality—she cared about her art and about her books and she definitely spoke her mind, but for a first-person novel, I felt like something was missing. The same went for most of the other characters. They were all slightly one-note, though, except for the main Russian character, Kretzsky. The so-called “bald man” was a pretty interesting character, too, but I was perpetually annoyed that he seemed to know all about what was happening—to Lithuania, to the Jews, all of it—as if it had already happened.
There is one other reason I cannot give this book five stars, and it may sound petty, but the language rang a little false to me. I realize that World War II happened only seventy years ago, but that’s nearly three whole generations—plenty of time for colloquial language to change. I doubt everyone was running around saying, “Okay.” “Are you okay, Lina?” “Okay.” “I’m okay.” Please stop. This was my only real beef with the book throughout; it wasn’t nearly annoying enough to ruin the significance or importance or effectiveness of the overall story, but every time a character used “okay,” I cringed a little.
And another note about language: why no Lithuanian? Yes, I realize it would be difficult to pronounce, especially seeing it written. But there were a number of Russian words included; a little Lithuanian would have made the characters come alive to me (especially since it was always a little unclear when they were speaking Russian and when they were speaking Lithuanian—I think Ms. Sepetys could have used the same tactic that the show Vikings does: whenever the language shifts, establish the change—for the reader’s benefit—by using one or two words from that language in the dialogue. (On the same note, why was “davai” constantly used instead of “hurry”? Few, if any, other Russian words were consistently used, so that was a little odd.)
As a whole, though, Between Shades of Gray was definitely greater than the sum of its parts. I’m glad it wasn’t a Holocaust novel. People will write about those horrors forever—and they should—but few people (in the West at least) have ever written about this horror. It was probably high time that someone did. Ruta Sepetys deserves praise for that alone. Her novel is certainly an accomplishment, even if it’s an imperfect one. It wasn’t (and shouldn’t have been) very enjoyable, but it was well-researched and earnest, and that’s what counts.
One—slightly silly—final thought: I couldn’t stop thinking of Hannibal Lecter while reading this. There was one particularly jarring scene where the deported Lithuanians cheer that the Germans have invaded Lithuania and they will be saved, and I just snorted and said, “The Lecters will not be pleased.”