I'm a librarian moonlighting as a librarian. I'm currently working at two Michigan libraries: a small town public library, where I am now the director, and a K-12 public charter school. I write reviews of YA and juvenile fiction, and books set in Michigan and/or written by Michigan authors. I also occasionally discuss libraries and library science.
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.
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.
I would love to have posted several reviews in the space of time between when I announced my giveaway winner and now. I even have one in the works, about Between Shades of Gray. However, there are several things working against me. Here are my excuses.
I've moved. Sort of. Due to the harsh U.P. winter, I am now renting a place within walking distance of my main job (the school/public library) from a friend's parents while her grandma is gone for a couple months as a snowbird. My good, big computer is still at my parents' house, which I stay at on Fridays for my other job (the charter school library) and Saturdays (my day off). While I do have my darling netbook here with me, it is not up to all the marvelous things my desktop can do. This apparently includes signing into both my alumni email account and my Gmail account that's connected to this blog, on Friefox simultaneously. Sometimes. It's complicated. I can get into my Google Reader (tied to this) just fine with both accounts on, but when I try to go to Blogger, it pitches a fit because the alumni account can't do that. Gah! Technology.
You wouldn't believe how hard it is to write a review of a hard-hitting book like Between Shades of Gray. Currently, it's become a very nerdy, librarian-y, historical geeky review of it, rather than something about the story. Hopefully I'll figure out what I want in this review and get it up soon.
I have a book fair this week. If you've followed this blog for a while, you probably know that I get super-busy at that time, and then post the swag that I was able to get for the charter school library with our Scholastic Dollars. It's so worthwhile, but oh, so time-consuming.
Hopefully I'll soon get things together and tell you about the good books (and not-so-good books) I've read lately, and show off the delicious books that I'll be putting in the library. Until then, stay warm. And be thankful you don't live in a place where the snow never stops.