Thanks in part to the large body of well-written, honest accounts --- both fictional and nonfictional --- about the Holocaust, Americans now grow up both knowing of, and being rightly horrified by, the atrocities committed by the Nazis during World War II. But they are much less familiar with the horrors committed by the Soviets toward the people of the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) during the same period.
As Ruta Sepetys contends in her afterword to BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY, however, it's essential that Americans learn the stories of those who lived --- and died --- under Stalin's reign of terror. Trapped between Nazi Germany on one side and the Stalinist Soviet Union on the other, residents of the Baltic states were ignored or forgotten until fairly recently; only after their independence in 1991 have any of them been able to tell their stories. And even now, many are too thankful for their regained freedom to want to dwell on a brutal and painful period of their history. But, as Sepetys points out, the Baltic people's remarkable optimism and hope in the face of cruelty and neglect is just one more reason why their stories must be told: "They chose hope over hate," Sepetys writes, "and showed the world that even through the darkest night, there is light."
Fifteen-year-old Lina enjoys a prosperous life in Lithuania. Her parents are intellectuals, often hosting dinners and conversations for her father's colleagues at the university. Lina herself is an aspiring artist, inspired by the dark honesty of Edvard Munch's paintings to want to make her own career as an artist. She has been accepted into a prestigious summer arts program in the capital city of Vilnius, and is eagerly looking ahead to her own future full of family, art, ideas and culture.
That is, until June 14, 1941, when the Soviets begin rounding up all those they've identified as anti-Soviet traitors and deporting them to work camps hundreds of miles away. Among them are Lina and her family, who are shoved into overcrowded, filthy train cars and transported first to an area in the southern Soviet Union near Mongolia and later to Siberia, north of the Arctic Circle. Her mother and younger brother Jonas are almost immediately separated from her father, whom, she later learns, has been imprisoned.
Lina, Jonas and their mother work nonstop through brutal weather conditions just to receive a daily ration of a handful of stale bread. They must contend with a wide array of hardships, including near-starvation, a variety of serious illnesses, the cruelty of Soviet guards, and even madness. Their most pervasive enemy, however, is hopelessness. Each of them must find his or her own way to contend with this vicious demon. For Lina, the answer lies in her artwork. She draws maps and coded messages on a handkerchief, hoping to reach her father with the news that they are still alive (and to hear, in return, tidings of his own survival). For others, the hope of survival rests in stealing food and supplies, celebrating holiday traditions, or (for the desperate) ingratiating themselves with the guards, some of whom are more sympathetic than Lina would have believed at first.
The suffering experienced by Lina and her companions is shocking and often difficult to read. But BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY is also a profoundly moving and inspiring book, as Lina discovers first her own capacity for courage, then her ability to use art to overcome challenges, and finally her desire for both love and survival. "There were only two possible outcomes in Siberia," notes Lina. "Success meant survival. Failure meant death. I wanted life. I wanted to survive." The power of art and hope to overcome despair and death underlies Lina's story and the stories of all whose lives pass through this remarkable debut novel. Readers will surely be inspired to follow their examples --- to seize life and, above all, to tell their stories in whatever way they can.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 28, 2011