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.
The synopsis is what drew me to this book and that was the build up for the story because from the first page, there was no rest, no break. In other words, it started with the action. This story takes place in 1941, in the time of Joseph Stalin, when the Soviets were in Lithuania. This was all before Hitler did what he did.
Late one night, Lina and her family are taken by the NKVD because they are on the list. They are being deported. Lina and her younger brother, Jonas, don’t fully understand what’s going on and that makes sense given that no one tells them anything.
Lina is quite a spirited young girl and it’s clear from the beginning that she has a brain in that head of hers. She has ideas and opinions and that’s great and all but not when the Soviets can come knocking on the door at any time.
“You stand for what is right, Lina, without the expectation of gratitude or reward.”
Lina and Jonas along with their mother are separated from their father and they’re thrown into this carriage that’s meant for cattle. They form a sort of bond with the other people in the carriage and they end up looking out for one another.
Lina would describe what it looked like outside every time the train stopped and she mentioned how the guards would remove the dead from each carries as the journey wore on. With the image of the dead bodies piled up, I was reminded of the poem Vultures by Chinua Achebe and that poem fits with this book because it talks about roughly the same era.
By the end of this section I was wishing that everyone in the carriage stayed together. They’d experienced hardships together and it was difficult to think about the fact that they might be separated again.
“I had no idea how quickly it was to change, to fade. If I had, I would have stared at my reflection, memorising it. It was the last time I would look into a real mirror for more than a decade.”
The group are put to hard labour and believe it or not, are faced with even harsher conditions. We get more insight into what it going on in the world and what Stalin is doing to the people. In history class I always paid more attention to Hitler’s operation than Stalin’s so I’m a bit rusty in my knowledge.
This section of the book takes place over a ten month period. The group become even closer because now they’re not in their own country anymore. They have no one else who understands them so they stick together and find the time and opportunity to have celebrations even when their worlds seem like it’s crumbling down around them.
There are moments when the characters seem so happy that even I as the reader forget that there’s a war going on in the background but then something happens that bursts that bubble. These people had to build their defences so strong that no one could get through and break their will. Their memories and hope was all they had and they had to hold tight on to it.
“Don’t be scared. Don’t give them anything, Lina, not even your fear.”
What I liked about this section is that the harder the guards tried to break the people, the harder the people fought back. There were obviously a few who broke down but that was to be expected. Some had to do unseemly things to get by and that’s understandable because the main goal is to survive and get through today so that there is a possibility for tomorrow.
I can’t imagine how these people felt, being torn away from their families in the middle of the night, finding a new family, only to be torn away from them as well.
At this point in the book you’d think that it was finally over. The worst that could happen had happened and their suffering was over. This wasn’t the case though because with every hill they climbed over, a new one waited in the distance.
These people knew they were going to die. The only thing was that they didn’t know when. Would they die today, tomorrow or would they live to see what old age looked like. The sadder thing is that for some, this was their life and they knew nothing else. They didn’t get to live long enough to see freedom. Some forgot what that even was.
“You think of nothing but yourself. If you want to kill yourself, what’s keeping you?” I said. Silence sat between our stares.
“Fear,” he said.
There was nothing perfect about this ending and this book in general except the writing. Ruta Sepetys’ writing style really drew me in from the first page and it was so informative, I learnt quite a lot. The fact that this was sort of based on true stories told to the author makes it scarier because this really happened but also opens our eyes to what the world was like and in certain case, still is like. I’m glad I decided to pick this book up. It made for an excellent read and definitely did not disappoint.
“In 1991, after fifty years of brutal occupation , the three Baltic countries regained their independence, peacefully and with dignity, They chose hope over hate and showed the world that even through the darkest night, there is light.”
-Ruta E. Sepetys
Read: 21 November 2017
Publication Date: 1 April 2011
Publisher: Puffin Books
Link to Author’s Goodreads Page: Ruta Sepetys
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