Thursday, April 12, 2012
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
If you like: Lithuanians * genocide * perseverance
Between Shades of Gray tells the story of a teenage girl who is taken, along with her mother and brother, from her home in the middle of the night, put into a cattle car, and shipped to Siberia. The story provides a fictional account of what it was like to experience the Soviet genocide of the Lithuanians, Estonians, and Latvians. The people are coerced into admitting guilt for crimes they have not committed, and forced to work in labor camps for decades as penance.
This is not a story of hope, but a story of strength. Against all odds, without food, shelter, or clothing, some of the people do manage to survive. Though the conditions bring out the worst in some people, it is amazing the way people will work together. Some will pass along notes and messages; some will smuggle food out of the fields; some will give their ration of bread to those who are worse off. That is not to say that everyone is strong. Many people find death a better option than continuing to struggle each minute. In spite of the horrific treatment, bonds are formed between people. Love blooms. New family units are created to replace those that were destroyed. Though some people may wish for death at times, something continues to push them onward.
Reading Between Shades of Gray was eye opening for me. In school the camps in Siberia were mentioned in passing, but the vast scope of this genocide never really sunk in. The duration was also never clear to me. It is hard to imagining finding the will to go on for over a decade in the conditions described in this story. Between Shades of Gray is different from similar stories. So many focus on religious persecution. Here there is no higher set of morals to cling to. The people have no specific offense besides where they live. In stories of religious persecution, the characters have a unifying faith to guide them. Though the majority in Between Shades of Gray are of the same faith, it is not what binds them. This unifies them less in some ways, but more so in others. Their patriotism is part of the reason for their imprisonment, and helps them to get through it initially. As one might expect, this is a story of pain and loss. It is so overwhelming that the total washes over you as a reader, and does not make reading the story unbearable. It is hard to believe that life and death can hinge on so many insignificant things.
If you want to read a story about concentration camps, survival, and love that you haven’t read before, read Between Shades of Gray.
Sepetys, Ruta. Between Shades of Gray. New York: Philomel Books, 2011. Kindle edition.