[Between Shades of Gray] Ruta Sepetys

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Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.

I knew then that this book was going to be hard to get through.

I cannot express enough how emotional this book made me. (And it continued for days after). Prior to reading Between Shades of Gray, I’d had no idea about the deportation and genocide of the Baltic people. I don’t recall learning about it in school, so this fictional account based on peoples’ tales of this event was my introduction. And it was extremely difficult to get through at times.

Lina is a fifteen year old artist, one who has high hopes of perfecting her art away in the city. She ignored the signs that things were wrong–burned family photos in the fireplace, silver and money sewed away in her mothers coat, terse exchanges between her parents–until the Soviet Secret Police came for them. Between Shades of Gray is the story of how Lina documents the horrors that she faces every day under her deportation: being packed for months at a time onto cattle cars, the worried face of her mother as she gives her meager food ration to her two children, the faces of those as they are broken by the horrible conditions. Lina learns that for most people, there is a point that they can be broken and she won’t be one of them. She draws and writes–an extremely dangerous thing to do–to remember the things that have been done to them. It can’t be forgotten.

The subject matter of Between Shades of Gray was a tough thing to get through. I think it was made worse by the fact that this was the first time I’d read anything about this part of history. Lina was such a wonderful protagonist to walk me through this event. I immediately connected with her and the way she saw her world. I honestly had to remind myself at several points in the book that she was not a real person because she was so realistic. She exists only in the pages of Between Shades of Gray. Ruta Sepetys was inspired by her own family history and conducted many interviews with the survivors of the deportation. So although I know that Lina is fictional, it’s difficult to come to terms with the fact that very similar events happened to real people. It’s really difficult for me to wrap my head around the knowledge that humans can be so horrible to other human beings. It’s for this same reason that I have such an emotional time with non-fiction and fictional books about the Holocaust.

When a fictional book is about a very real event, writing becomes more important. It has to be done well. Ruta Sepetys writes in a way that does not minimize the brutality of what Lina and her family are going through, yet she also shows how people are resilient in the face of so much suffering. The balance of the two is handled perfectly by the author. Along with realistic characters I deeply cared for,  Between Shades of Gray deserves all the accolades it has gotten.

5 stars.

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