In this, her debut novel, Sepetys tackles the heart-wrenching topic of Stalin's secret deportation of millions from the Balkan states during and after WWII. We see the atrocious conditions that mostly women and children must endure in their "work camps" through the eyes of Lina Vilkas, who knows, as do we, that the conditions must be worse for her father and the rest of the men in Stalin's prisons.
Clearly, this book is not a pick-me-up, but the spirit of endurance that Lina, her family, and her friends exhibit is inspiring. Between Shades of Gray tracks the slow progress of Lina, her brother Jonas, and their mother Elena from their home in Lithuania to a work camp in Trofimovsk in the Arctic Circle. They suffer many indignities (to put it mildly) at the hands of their Soviet captors (so many and so much that I stopped marking them in my copy). The beginning of the book, especially, is very similar to the beginnings of many other stories about this time in Europe. The lists, the beatings, the cattle cars.
I could go on and on about how the Vilkas and their group suffer. I could draw many parallels between their experience and those of Holocaust survivors. I could talk about how, at times, the weight of what they go through is crushing, but I don't want to. I want to talk about the points of light in this book that made the rest of it bearable (and when I say bearable, I mean in terms of the subject matter. The whole book is beautifully and compellingly written). Lina's memories of her father and of her cousin Joanna certainly help her through her trials, as does her art which she continues, and uses to her advantage in many ways, throughout the book. A sweet, little romance doesn't hurt either. But what really makes the work camps tolerable is what the deportees do for each other. Take this example from near the end of the book, when everyone is on the brink of starvation (and please excuse my page-spanning quote):
"Do you think we should eat him [an owl]?" asked Janina.
At first I was shocked. Then I imagined the plump body, roasting in our barrel, like a chicken. I poked at it again. I grabbed its wing and pulled. It was heavy, but slid across the snow.
"No! You can't drag him. The NKVD will see. They'll take him away from us," said Janina. "Hide him in your coat."
Other deportees looked at me.
"Our mamas are sick. They need food. Will you help us?" explained Janina.
People I didn't know formed a circle around me, sheltering me from view. They escorted me safely back to our jurta, undetected. They didn't ask for anything. They were happy to help someone, to succeed at something, even if they weren't to benefit.
Between Shades of Gray is an important book about a not-often-talked about event in history. For this reason, it will appeal to historical fiction lovers, and WWII aficionados. It's also an emotional read, with dashes of suspense and romance mixed into Lina's experience of oppression and, ultimately, loss. I highly recommend this powerful debut and look forward to whatever Sepetys has in store for us next!
Between Shades of Gray comes out on March 22nd!
Book source: ARC provided by the publisher through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.
*Quotes and page numbers are from an uncorrected proof and may not match the published copy.
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