Saturday, February 9, 2013

Yay for YA: Between Shades of Gray

As any librarian can probably tell you, too often books have the same or similar titles.  Sometimes books sharing names can even have similar premises or locations, such as A Superior Death by Nevada Barr (a mystery set on Isle Royale) and Superior Death by Matthew Williams (a mystery set in the U.P.).  This can be a pain when trying to find the book that a patron is looking for.

In 2011, within two months of each other, two very different books with unfortunately similar titles were published.  Between Shades of Gray, a historical fiction YA novel about Stalin's ethnic cleanings of the Baltic states during World War II, came out in March.  Fifty Shades of Grey, an erotic, adult romance that had originally been Twilight fan-fiction, debuted in May.  The latter is a bestseller with a movie in the works.  The former has been the subject of many cases of mistaken identity (read an article about it).

So let me tell you about the lesser-known book, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys.  Ms. Sepetys is a Michigan native, by the way.

Checkouts: 2 at the school/public library; 1 at the charter school library
Typical reader: Teens looking for historical fiction, a Michigan author's novel, or untold history
Source: I checked it out from the school/public library

Synopsis: Lina lived a happy life in Lithuania with her parents and brother until, one night in 1941, the Soviets arrest them all and ship them away in cattle cars to Siberia.  Separated from her father, Lina and her mother and brother struggle to survive, first in an Altai village, and then north of the Arctic Circle.  Lina finds solace in her art, and dreams of home and being reunited with her father.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars (4.5, rounded up)

There are plenty of books about the Holocaust.  They tell the tales of those hidden away, or who try to save those targeted, or those who survived, or those who died.  But what about an extermination that was taking place at the same time?  What information is there, either in the history books or in fiction, that tell the stories of what happened in the Baltic states that were annexed/overrun by the Soviet Union?

After finishing this novel, I looked.  Believe me, there isn't much available, especially if you're looking for something that isn't scholarly.  Cut out Jewish Lithuanians' tales of the Holocaust, and there's even less.  If you include Finns in Karelia, you can find more books and information, but perhaps that situation is more known because Finnish-Americans and Finnish-Canadians emigrated there, only to be put into Soviet labor camps.  (I need to read more into this.)  And I honestly don't know if Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago touches on the Baltic citizens who were victims of the roundups and labor camps.

Between Shades of Gray might be a novel, but a lot of research went into making it.  When one considers how little information is accessible about its subjects to the average American reader, this book is quite valuable.  It's telling a piece of history that's rarely shared.  When I was done, I passed it on to my father; he likes history, and had just finished reading The Book Thief.  He also gave this book five stars.

Beyond the nerdy assessment, what can I tell you about this book?  It's gripping.  This is one of those novels that you cannot put down, because you must know how it turns out.  It also speaks volumes on how powerful hope can be, even when life gives you the worst possible situations, such as winter above the Arctic Circle in Siberia without enough resources.  It opens your eyes to see what terrible things went on under Josef Stalin - things not so different from what Adolf Hitler did - without being too devastating.  This is heavy material, yet it is written at an appropriate level for teens.

I can appreciate the characters not only at face-value but also at an overarching level.  They are realistic people, trying to cope with their situation or giving up hope, but they also represent larger themes.  Ms. Sepetys gives us, in Lina's group, a cross-section of the sorts of people who were sent to Siberia to be worked to death: intellectuals like teachers, professors, and librarians; bourgeois dissenters; those who would not give information about their colleagues; Jews; and the families of any of these.

I would not use the wording about this novel that I saw at a Scholastic book fair - "If you liked The Diary of Anne Frank, you'll love this book!" (my word, how distasteful) - but I do have to say that it is good, it is important, it is touching, and it needs to be read.  And then follow it with something light and fluffy, to make you feel better.


  1. More people need to pick up this book that's for sure!

  2. It is a powerful book that shines light into a very dark, very cruel part of history. It is through books like this, shining light into places of evil, that brings people to say, "Never Again". I fervently hope that more books will be written,more stories told, so that we can get a clear picture of the evils that occurred during that time.