Between Shades of Gray

November 16, 2017
Between Shades of Gray Book Cover Between Shades of Gray
Ruta Sepetys
Historical Fiction
Penguin Audio
March 22nd, 2011

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.

(via Goodreads)


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.

“Andruis, I’m…scared.”
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?


  • Laila@BigReadingLife November 16, 2017 at 3:55 pm

    This sounds like such a hard book to read but also so worthy of being read! I’ve not heard of this aspect of WWII before.

    As for pick-me-up reads, I sometimes reread a childhood favorite. The Anne books are also great comfort reads! Ditto for I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. And for me, there is no greater comfort read than the novels of Jane Austen.

    • Jackie B November 19, 2017 at 10:56 am

      It astounds me that such a horrible tragedy was swept under the rugs of history. Between Shades of Gray is certianly a worthy read.

      I’ve never read anything by Dodie Smith– but I Capture the Castle sounds like a lovely pick me up! I also haven’t read all of Austen’s works yet– so I should probably work on that. Thanks for the pick-me-up recommendations, Laila!

  • Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel November 16, 2017 at 9:57 pm

    I have not read anything about the plight of Lithuanians either (well, now you have!). I have heard such high praise for Septys. I am convinced by the review that she deserves all the praise. I can see how much the book touched you and broke your heart.

    • Jackie B November 19, 2017 at 10:57 am

      I was always hesitant about picking up her books as Septys’ books are always about challenging topics. But I’m so glad that I did. The writing isn’t perfect but I was definitely swept up in the emotion she built in these pages. Heratbreaking.

      I hope you get to read Septys’ works someday!

  • Ann Marie November 17, 2017 at 6:01 pm

    Great review! I read so much WWII fiction but this actually sounds like something quite different. Adding to the TBR! 🙂

    • Jackie B November 19, 2017 at 11:09 am

      It feels like half the historical fiction out there is WWII fiction. It can certainly feel a bit dumbing, but I completely recommend this book. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it, Ann Marie!

  • Lashaan (Bookidote) November 17, 2017 at 10:28 pm

    What a beautiful, insightful and thorough review, Jackie! This author has been on my radar for far too long! The subject is definitely not one that I have read about before, and that audiobook sounds like a real tearjerker. Have you read her author books? Salt to the Sea, maybe?

    • Jackie B November 19, 2017 at 12:10 pm

      Thank you, Lashaan! The audiobook was essential to my enjoyment, I think. I know my personality– I would have put the physical book down if things had gotten too challenging to read, and never picked it back up again. So, while the audiobook made things a bit more realistic and powerful, I think I needed it.

      I haven’t read any of Sepetys’ other books yet. I found this book accidentally and I’m so glad I did. Salt to the Sea and Out of the Easy are now both on my TBR. Have you read anything by Sepetys?

      • Lashaan (Bookidote) November 19, 2017 at 12:57 pm

        Nooo, I haven’t Her books have been on my TBR for a VERY long time! But it’s definitely nice to see a glowing review like this one to remind me why I even have her books on my pile! 😀

  • Grab the Lapels November 18, 2017 at 10:28 am

    I was wondering if maybe Evelina recommended this book to you; she’s from Lithuania. I can’t do Holocaust books anymore. They’re always so upsetting. When told from a child’s perspective, everything is wrong and bad and god-awful. When told from an adult’s perspective, my emotions get whipped around because those people are all victims, but just because one group is forced together to be killed doesn’t mean they were all good people to begin with, and that’s when the horror is escalated.

    • Jackie B November 19, 2017 at 12:33 pm

      Actually, she didn’t! I will admit, I haven’t been brave enough to ask her about it directly yet– but I know we’ll talk about this soon. I found this book through AudioSync, a summer audiobook program for teens. I was introduced to this by a librarian friend and it’s awesome. I never would have found Sepetys’ writing otherwise. Brilliant.

      I completely understand what you’re saying about Holocaust literature. It’s all so horrible and raw and crushing. Growing up in a Jewish community and regularly attending Sunday School and Hebrew School I’ve read a lot of this literature. I tend to steer clear of it, but I don’t mind reading it occasionally. It’s hard to read, for sure. Biut I think it’s important for me to remember these terrible things. I don’t want them to happen agian. And I do want to be able to recognize when good people do terrible things by avoidance or intentional ignorance or whatnot. I don’t want to be those people. And I know I won’t be able to recognize those behaviors in myself unless I really know what they look like.

  • Shouni November 18, 2017 at 11:04 am

    Your review sums up the book so well, Jackie! I remember reading “Between Shades of Gray” a few years ago and crying my eyes out because of everything these characters have gone through. Calling the book unflinchingly brutal is the perfect phrase because that’s exactly what it was. I haven’t read many WWII novels but I’ve heard good things about Code Name Verity.

    • Jackie B November 19, 2017 at 11:16 am

      Exactly! I’m so glad I’m not alone here, even if we both had a hard time with the content. I am actually really surprised I haven’t heard more about Septys’ works out in the blogosphere!

      Oooh, I haven’t read Code Name Verity yet– but it does sound amazing. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation!

  • Dani @ Perspective of a Writer November 18, 2017 at 6:03 pm

    Such a good review Jackie… you have me pondering it for my book club party next month! I love that it has a young narrator and that she draws… The fact you listened to audiobook form is incredible to me… I can’t imagine having a story like this read to me… there is no skimming or pausing for a break… nothing! How raw and unflinching it must have been! <3

    I haven't read about the Lithuanians before but there is a book called Winter Garden about the Russians left behind in the city. That is a powerful book! Kristen Hannah loves to incorporate the present and past together in the same story so that is a neat aspect of the book!

    • Jackie B November 19, 2017 at 12:08 pm

      Sometimes, I’m glad that I pick audiobook formats for challenging books. I know that if things got too hard, I might put the physical book down and walk away forever. But this book deserves better. It was certainly raw and unflinching…and the audiobook forced me to keep going. No giving up because things got too hard. That’s the kick in the pants I needed.

      I think this would make an amazing book club read! If you end up reading it for book club, let me know that happens. I’m super curious.

      I’ve never read anything by Kristen Hannah– but I’ve heard only amazing things about her works. I’ve added Winter Garden to my TBR. I see that you struggled with the modern section of the novel; but I’m willing to try it out! 😀

      • Dani @ Perspective of a Writer November 20, 2017 at 1:19 am

        Yeah I’ve read all about birth order so I’m pretty tough on sibling portrayal… and for a youngest reader it would be the total opposite of my experience…
        I TOTALLY admire how the audiobook helped you keep pushing through… we are seriously considering taking it to the party! I’ll let you know ♥️

  • Kourtni @ Kourtni Reads November 18, 2017 at 6:43 pm

    I’m so glad to hear you found this book as powerful as I did. Sepetys is such a fantastic storyteller.

    • Jackie B November 19, 2017 at 12:14 pm

      I can’t believe it took me this long to learn this!! I’ve not heard a lot about Sepetys on the blogs, and I will admit I was a bit hestiant to pick this book up. But I’m so glad I did. I cannot wait to read Salt to the Sea

      Have you read any of her books before, Kourtni?

  • Trang (Bookidote) November 18, 2017 at 10:03 pm

    Wow Jackie, this is such a perfect review!! :O It was powerful nonetheless just to hear it from you I can’t imagine when I actually get to read it!

    • Jackie B November 19, 2017 at 12:13 pm

      Thank you so much Trang! I appreciate the compliment. It’s certainly a raw and powerful book. I hope you get a chance to read it someday when you are ready to bear at emotional burden.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting! It’s great to hear from you.

  • Anna @MyBookishDream November 19, 2017 at 1:32 am

    I have heard so many amazing things about Between Shades of Gray, but I have yet to pick that book up. I just haven’t been feeling up to reading an emotionally devastating book, which apparently this one is. Plus I tend to cry whenever I read a World War II book and I just haven’t been up to that lately. But Between Shades of Gray is a book that I definitely plan on reading in the future, it seems like a very important read. Great review! 😀

    • Jackie B November 19, 2017 at 12:12 pm

      Emotionally devistating is a great way to define this book. I definitely wouldn’t recommend it to anyone look for an uplifting read, that’s for sure. But it’s definitely worth reading. I know how challenging it can be to get in the mood for this sort of book– but I hope you can find the mental and emotional space in your life to pick this one up! It’s so worth it.

  • Jane @ Greenish Bookshelf November 20, 2017 at 3:09 pm

    This has been on my TBR for some time. But I haven’t yet found the time (or the emotional strength) to read it. Beautiful review. I should bump this up on my list. But perhaps after the holidays. I love WWII fiction and new angles on that time. Will definitely let you know when I do read it!

    • Jackie B November 21, 2017 at 6:34 pm

      I am with you on needing the emotional strength to get through a book like this. I honestly didn’t know what I was getting into when I started reading Between Shades of Gray. While it was challenging sometimes, I have zero regrets. I hope that you find yourself in the mood for a new angle on WWII literature– this is really eye opening.

      • Jane @ Greenish Bookshelf November 28, 2017 at 1:51 pm

        I so appreciate your perspective, Jackie! I think I will tackle this in the new year. Always appreciate new WWII perspectives.

  • Books, Vertigo and Tea November 21, 2017 at 6:21 pm

    This is such a stunning review Jackie! I am not sure what to say aside from the fact that I know I must read this now. I felt how moved you were by your time with this book. I just won a copy of Salt to the Sea by her, so now I am even more anxious to crack it open and experience her writing.

    • Jackie B November 22, 2017 at 10:40 am

      Thank you so much, Dani. Your praise means a lot to me!

      Congrats on winning a copy of Salt to the Sea! That’s definitely on my TBR. I hope that you enjoy it and it’s just as wonderful (but hopefully not quite as emotionally draining?) as I feel Between Shades of Gray can be.

  • theorangutanlibrarian November 23, 2017 at 8:58 pm

    I’m so so glad you liked this!! I totally get what you mean about it being unflinchingly brutal (brilliantly put!) I think it’s such an important book and deserves to be read. Excellent review!
    Also are you planning to read Salt to the Sea? I liked that one even more!

    • Jackie B November 30, 2017 at 5:48 pm

      I am definitely planning on reading Salt to the Sea. I’ve heard wonderful things about it. That said, I think I need to give myself some space before picking up another Septys book… particularly since I hear Salt to the Sea is just as brutally honest.

      • theorangutanlibrarian November 30, 2017 at 6:36 pm

        Brilliant!! And I can totally understand that, cos yeah Between Shades of Grey was so harsh. But I think after those two books, she’s cemented herself for me as an autoread author

  • Helen Murdoch December 3, 2017 at 1:51 pm

    So glad you liked this; I think it is powerful.

    • Jackie B December 4, 2017 at 9:08 am

      Thank you Helen! It definitely rocked me in ways I wasn’t expecting. You’ve read Between Shades of Gray? Have you read any of Septys other works?

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