Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys: Book Review

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Between Shades of Gray
Title: Between Shades of Gray

My Synopsis:

Lina Vilkas is a normal teen girl living in Lithuania in 1941, starting to think about boys, drawing all the time, and preparing for art school. Then a knock comes in the middle of the night. The NKVD (apparently an early form of the KGB) have come to take her and her family away. Lina and her younger brother Jonas don’t know why. All they know is that they have 20 minutes to gather what they can. They leave the house in terror and are eventually loaded onto cattle cars with many, many others. The cars label them as “thieves and prostitutes.” They seem to be the people who weren’t cowed when Stalin took over Lithuania and are therefore seen as a threat. They don’t know where their father is, but their mother keeps their spirits buoyed with talk of everyone being together soon. They don’t know just how long their journey is going to be.

My Review:

Oh my goodness. How did I not know about this? I’ve come across vague statements about how many millions of people died under Stalin’s regime in the past. I didn’t realize the scale of it, if that makes sense. I somehow thought it was smaller groups of “dissenters” killed across many, many years and across a vast country. I didn’t realize it was genocide.

Lina and Jonas and their mother made this unthinkable tragedy real to me. Lina had such a distinct personality–feisty, dreamy, artistic, hopeful, angry–yet she was so easy to relate to. Watching Jonas grow almost overnight from a boy to the virtual man of the house was heartbreaking. Where did his childhood go? And still, I was so proud of him. Yes, proud of a fictional character.

Lina’s terror and dreams kept me turning pages at a pace that has been unheard of for me recently. I just couldn’t stand not knowing how everything was going to turn out. I very much had a case of the “Just One More Chapter”s. The writing was so immediate; it just grabbed me and didn’t let go. I even consciously stopped at one point to see if it was written in present tense and I just hadn’t noticed. Nope. I was just so fully present with Lina that I felt what she felt.

This is a such a tough read, but so important. The Soviets were in power so long, they almost managed to silence this. Brave survivors of the genocide who didn’t live to see the USSR fall still left behind written and oral records. Those who outlasted the regime have bravely shared their stories. And still, 20+ years after “the wall came down,” I’m just now learning what happened. My thanks to the author for sharing a story that impacted her family so deeply. Those who endured it must be so proud of her.

Read this when you’re feeling brave enough to bear witness to a human tragedy of epic proportions. We can’t let the victims be forgotten.

Reading Challenge:


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  1. I was worried from the title that it was some kind of 50 Shades of Grey ripoff. Whew!

    It sounds like a good book about a tragic subject. Thanks for the thoughtful review.

    Sorry it has taken me forever to get around to reading all the reviews posted on the European Reading Challenge page. Thanks for taking part in the challenge!

    Rose City Reader

  2. Excellent review! I loved this book and learned so much from it. It was sad that after everything they'd been through, they couldn't even speak of it and had to act like it hadn't happened.

  3. I was so grateful to learn about this-I knew about the genocide under Stalin but was unclear about how it affected all of the countries under the USSR's control. I never thought about how it affected Estonia, Lativa, Lithuania, etc. and I'm so glad I had this book open my eyes to that.

  4. This is a great review! This is a book I really want to read. I remember learning about this subject a little in my Russian History class in college, but it was more factual. I love historical fiction because it gives such life to these events. Love your review!

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