I cannot stop crying.
Sepetys debut novel tells the chilling and lesser-spoken-of tale of the displacement, forced migration, and forced labor of Lithuanians (and Latvians, Estonians, and Finns…) into Siberia by the Soviets in World War II. While our narrator, Lina, is only 15 years old when our story begins, Sepetys refuses to shy away from the more horrific elements. This is not a pretty book. I might even describe it as unflinchingly brutal– but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it.
Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.
I have never read a book which tells the story of what these Lithuanians went through. Thankfully, both the title and cover are true to this book. Lina is an artist. While she is still with her mother and brother, they are separated from their father in the deportation. Hopeful, Lina documents everything which is happening to her and those around her. She writes letters she will never send and draws how she views camp life– the beatings, murders, forced labor, and all of it. She tries to be cryptic with some of her drawings with the intention of passing them from hand to hand across Siberia. Perhaps her father will see them, interpret them, and they will find each other again?
Hope, as small as it is, lightly lines each moment in this novel. Not only does Lina hope, but her family members hope. As they are forced along, they experience the hope of others as well. Families bringing out the photos of their loved ones at Christmas to “celebrate” with them are all hoping next Christmas they will all be together. As they are moved, many people hope they are going home or to America. Most of the characters have something which keeps them pushing through the terrible moments they are currently living.
Was it harder to die, or harder to be the one who survived?
The title of the book, Between Shades of Gray, reflects not only the Siberian landscape but the complexity of humanity. There are very few clear good guys and bad guys in this novel. The Lithuanians forced into these labor camps tried to hold on to their humanity. All of the original group shipped out along with Lina’s family are well educated and civilized. Yet, we saw people hiding food from others, stealing, and worse in order to survive. The NKVD members also have some moments where you question their work. Are they also trying to protect themselves through this process? Are they really as bad as they seem?
I listened to the audiobook, which was a good choice for me. I think the transitions from current day to flashback might have been choppier if I was reading the text. Instead, these flashbacks felt like Lina just mentally checked out of the horrors she was experiencing and instead chose to relive some of her favorite memories. The flow feels natural, if a bit frightening, from the audiobook perspective. I was worried for a bit Lina might become unhinged. Sepetys choice of this device feels appropriate and was well used to help Lina piece together parts of the puzzle as to why her family was here.
He stopped and turned to me. “No. Don’t be scared. Don’t give them anything Lina, not even your fear.”
While this book isn’t graphic, it does depict some terrible moments in the world. If I had been reading this in a physical form I likely would have put the book down and had to walk away. It’s far too horrible. But, listening, the moment would pass while I was still struggling with whatever terrible moment just occurred. I’m also thankful for the Epilogue. Sepetys read her own notes. It’s obvious, not just from the text but from her tone, that this story is close to her heart. Her own family went through this. They have no photos of her grandfather because they had to burn them all to protect him when he was in hiding. And that was an easy journey compared to most.
The audiobook ends with Sepetys breaking down in tears because she is so thankful that this story is finally being told.
I felt as if I were riding a pendulum. Just as I would swing into the abyss of hopelessness, the pendulum would swing back with some small goodness.
Ugh. I’m crying again.
This is a beautiful book. It’s hard to read. But it’s supposed to be hard to read. In these pages, you’ll be forced to examine some of the ugliest sides of humanity. And you’ll close the book without knowing how to help. This happened so long ago…
Between Shades of Gray is also currently in Post-Production for a 2018 film release. The film will be titled Ashes in the Snow. Just looking at the photos makes me teary-eyed.
What do you think?
- Have you read Between Shades of Gray? What do you think of this book?
- What exposure to this moment in history have you had? How do you react to these terrible events? Can you recommend other books about these events?
- After reading such an emotionally taxing book, I always need a pick-me-up. What would you recommend I read next?