Publisher: Philomel Books
Release: March 22, 2011
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.Every once in a while, you come across a book that happens to you. Many stories can transport people to different worlds, but few immerse and engage them so deeply that they feel they are living the plot alongside the characters. When experiencing a novel of this caliber, you are not a reader; you are a character actively participating in the book's events, feeling and sensing more than average.
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.
Between Shades of Gray is one of those books, an incredible feat I never would have predicted, considering heart-wrenching, cringe-inducing tales of terrible tragedies like this one usually seem distant and untouchable. And yet somehow this story weaves into readers' realities, becoming explosively, terrifyingly tangible.
This remarkable realism is not accomplished through vivid world or character building. Sepetys uses descriptive words to set scenes, but she never truly shows the feeling of fresh grass against your skin after days of darkness or the nerve-pressing desperation for a moment alone that comes from living in a constant crowd of prisoners. The author paints a meticulous picture of her setting, but the writing itself made me feel few emotions.
Instead, Between Shades of Gray's dynamic quality comes from its lack of intense emotion and its sparse writing that never tries too hard to be technical or force readers to connect. Lina simply relates what she experiences, describing each event and how it affects her. Her narration is stark and startling, even detached when she refers to her fellow deportees by qualities rather than names (the girl with the dolly, for example). The author also veers away from obscure historical terms, which allows readers to slide into the story without feeling confused and out-of-place in a world from the past.
While Sepetys's daring style may initially seem dull, descriptive but not evocative, it soon proves to be engaging because it forces readers to bring their own emotions to the text. Instead of slipping into a character's mind, readers imagine what they might feel if they were forced to endure the undignified and inhumane conditions in which Lina and her family live. Readers own the experience rather than share with another person, and they can do so however they choose.
So, although it takes place in a plane of adjectives, Between Shades of Gray implants its story inside of readers. It will haunt them forever, and the memories of what they experienced—not read about, but experienced—will never go away.