Between Shades of Gray: A Novel by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel; $17.99; 344 pages)
In the epilogue to Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, protagonist Lina speaks to us from a time capsule: “It is my greatest hope that the pages in this jar… prompt you to do something, to tell someone. Only then can we ensure that this kind of evil is never allowed to repeat itself.”
The story that she has buried in that jar begins in 1941 in Lithuania. Lina, who is fifteen, her younger brother Jonas, and her mother are at home one evening when the Soviet secret police come to the door. Through her eyes we watch as the three are deported to Siberia. Lina’s father, a professor who has aided relatives’ emigration to Germany has been arrested. His actions were prompted by the hope that the relatives might, in turn, help his own family escape Stalin’s tyranny.
As the truth of their situation gradually unfolds for Lina, she draws images of horror and images of heroism, and tucks the sketches into the lining of her suitcase. It’s an act of silent rebellion that she knows is both brave and foolish. But she is an artist who is desperate to record the history of the ordinary people swept up in Stalin’s purges. Through Lina’s eyes we see a portrait of true grace emerge in Mother, a woman whose calm, kindness, and humanity buoy the spirits of everyone else. We see how memories have the power to sustain and what happens when hope is lost.
What we do not see is why Stalin shipped this trainload of slave labor all the way across Siberia and north to the Arctic Circle to do work that seems only to sustain the comfort of the soldiers who guard them. Perhaps Sepetys intended the apparent illogic of the labor camp’s location to be yet another layer of punishment – another obstacle to hopefulness.
Sepety’s characters are fascinating, even those who are the verbal equivalent of pencil sketches – the bald man, the man who wound his watch, the repeater. Her spare prose is reminiscent of Pearl Buck’s. Between Shades of Gray depicts the effects of a moral disaster rather than Buck’s natural ones, but both authors know their story is so intrinsically dramatic that it needs no melodrama. Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, published the novel, Sepety’s first, in March of 2011. Highly recommended – and not just for young readers.
Kimberly Caldwell Steffen
A review copy was provided by the publisher.