Friday, May 3, 2013

Young Adult Fiction: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

On February 12, 2013, young adult writer Ruta Sepetys came out with her much anticipated second novel Out of the Easy. I hope to eventually read and post on her sophomore attempt, but in the meantime, I was able to pick up her debut novel, Between Shades of Grey. I was already expecting something a little different from the usual young adult books I pick up, and it turns out I was right to brace myself.

The Situation: Lina Vilkas lives in 1940s Lithuania with her parents and younger brother, Jonas. It is World War II and Stalin has been steadily marching his Russian troops west, taking over various countries, until he eventually meets up with Hitler. Some people have already been declared prisoners and sent away from their homes. The ones that remain must be careful what they do, what they say, and who they say it to. Lina is an incredibly gifted artist, but her tendency to draw political cartoons that depict the Russians in a less than favorable light incite her father's anger, but only because he knows they could incite something far worse.

The Problem: Mr. Vilkas was right to worry, but not about Lina's pictures, for now. The Vilkas family has been turned into the Communist Secret Police, the NKVD, for unknown crimes. When Lina's father is away, the NKVD come into Lina's home and order the family to pack their bags and head out. They almost separate Jonas from his sister and mother, since he is a male, but Mrs. Vilkas' fluent Russian comes in handy and saves him. From here, the Vilkas family will be taken far away from their home, along with other Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians. Stalin has decided to go ahead and take over the Baltic States, and he declares the former inhabitants as war criminals and sentences them to hard labor in prison and labor camps in places like Siberia, and even the Arctic circle. If the journey and work doesn't kill them, it seems like the harsh weather and lack of food just might. Lina must find a way to survive if she is ever to go home again. And she must figure out how to use her drawings as a way to send messages if she ever wants to see her father again.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical young adult novel that takes place during WWII. Obvious themes include war, survival, art, brutality, and sacrifice. Less obvious themes, at least to me, include compassion, empathy, community, and who you are in the face of an intense crisis. This part of WWII isn't the part we here much about in the states. The people of the Baltic states were forced from their homes and weren't allowed to return until about 12 years later, and even then, they were still treated like criminals and couldn't return to their actual homes, since they had long been taken over and claimed. While Between Shades of Grey isn't a true story, it is representative of what actually happened to a lot of people. Also, not only did Sepetys do a significant amount of research, interview many people, and even travel to Lithuania, the author is also the  daughter of a Lithuanian refugee.

My Verdict: This is a story. And it's an incredible one. Sepetys tells of the horrors that Lina's family is put through, but she does it for a young adult audience while not holding back at all. Her descriptions of the brutality and especially harsh travel conditions feel all too real. And she is able to portray the desperation of some characters as opposed to the hope of others, and how quickly and easily any one of them could cross the line between either on any given day. There were parts where I found myself praying out loud as the characters were praying, hoping for the survival and recovery of one of their own. What Sepetys put down on these pages is almost unbelievable, but it can't be, because it did happen.

Favorite Moment: When Lina is faced with her own selfishness and her own brand of brutality when she assumes one of their own has turned against them, only to find out that it is far from the truth, and the situation is much worse than she could have thought.

Favorite Character: Lina's mother is smart, clever, loving, sharing, and is really the glue that holds their little group together. She is always willing to sacrifice her own comfort for someone else in need, and even manages to see the humanity in the Russians that torture them.

Recommended Reading: Many things about this book remind of Elie Wiesel's Night. But while Lina's family was Protestant and the story is told from a teenage girl's point of view, Wiesel is Jewish and his story is the true account of his journey to and stay in a concentration camp. Both stories depict atrocities committed during WWII.

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