No, this book is not related in any way to Fifty Shades of Grey (although perhaps it should have been given a different name). Between Shades of Gray is actually an emotional and traumatic tale of a Lithuanian girl living in a Soviet labor camp during World War II. It has all of the elements of a great YA novel, with the added impact of an important historical message.
The main character, Lina, dreams of becoming an artist. She is only fifteen years old, but has been accepted to a top art school. One night, however, she is taken by Soviet officers along with her mother and younger brother. They are loaded into train cars like cattle with thousands of other Lithuanians and forced to ride for weeks with barely any food, water, or fresh air. When they finally do emerge from the train, they are in Siberia. Throughout years of being forced to work in labor camps, Lina leaves a trail of drawings in the hope that her father will find them and rescue them.
The story is definitely grim and Ruta Sepetys does not shy away from horrors such as dead children, starvation, and sexual assault. Knowing that this book was based on the real imprisonment of Lithuanians during World War II, it was hard for me to believe that anybody could survive such conditions. Siberia seems like a different planet to me, and definitely not one in which people could survive in tents with little food and no heat. It’s a miracle anyone did survive to tell their story. So I commend Sepetys for showing me a different side of World War II that I was not familiar with, and that has been suppressed for so long.
While the landscape of Siberia is several shades of gray, the characters that become Lina’s community are very colorful. From Andrius, a kindhearted but strong boy, to a pessimistic Jewish man, Sepetys creates complex people with her words at the same time as Lina draws them. She shows how people of all differences can come together and give one another life even when they have nothing. At a time when everyone could be expected to be selfish and save whatever food and money they have, Lina’s community decides to share with one another. It is this optimistic message of selflessness that Sepetys tries to emphasize more than the cruelty of the Soviets.
At the same time, I wish there was more emotion in this book. At times the writing is as cold as the Siberian landscape. Lina tells about horrible events in a cut and dry manner, while I feel like a fifteen year old girl would be freaking out (I know I would). The events in the book are certainly heart-wrenching, but I felt removed from them. I think the book would have had a greater impact if it focused more on what Lina was feeling than what she was seeing. I was expecting to be covered in tears by the end of the book, but didn’t shed a single one. But maybe that says more about me than about the book!
Overall, Between Shades of Gray is an important book and I’m glad that it was written. I would definitely recommend it to teenagers—I think I would have enjoyed it more at a younger age. But I definitely felt like I learned something from it, which is always a good thing. I just wish I had felt more from it.
My rating: 4 stars