Whenever I’ve mentioned Between Shades of Gray to people they seem to think it’s somehow linked to a certain other series of books with the words ‘Shades’ and ‘Grey’ in the title. It’s definitely not, but I can’t decide if the association is a drawback or not – perhaps people seeking a more illicit reading experience will be pleasantly surprised by a heartbreaking tale of loss and suffering of Lithuanians during the Second World War. Or perhaps people will assume it’s something they wouldn’t want to be caught reading and steer clear, missing out on a beautiful story and the opportunity to see another unique angle of WWII experiences.
Lina, our protagonist, is a fifteen year old Lithuanian whose life is turned upside down when her family is arrested by the Soviets and deported. Lina and her mother and brother endure a harrowing journey, taking them to concentration camps in Siberia. Lina’s father worked at the university and was arrested separately to his wife and two children. Lina is determined that her family will be reunited and goes to great lengths to pass on messages – using her skill as an artist – to find him. For Lina, her only way of processing the traumatic event she is witnessing and experiencing is to draw.
Ruta Sepetys does a fantastic job of illuminating an area of history that is tragically overlooked in our studies and knowledge of the Second World War. When we think of the war, we think of Hitler and the Nazis and the genocide of Jews. We might also think of Russia and Japan and the USA too. But I know that I ( like many others) have never known the extent of the plight of Lithuanians under Stalin’s rule. I know very little about that whole area of the world in general, so this novel was very eye opening. I believe that was Sepetys’ intent – to make us aware of what happened.
Her story is based on first hand accounts and has an air of truth about it. I found it very moving and also educational. I think it would be a fantastic book for students to read alongside other WWII novels, or even to study within it’s own right. The historical context is so rich and links with a number of other novels. I know that I felt similarly enlightened after reading The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons which is set in Russia win WWII – but that’s not a YA novel and definitely isn’t appropriate for younger readers! It’s a great feeling to realise that you are putting together pieces that give a fuller picture of real life events, even if those pieces come from novels.
My only complaints about the story are as follows:
- It was too short and ended abruptly! I wanted to know more about what happened and how Andras and Lina found each other and about Lina’s brother.
- In the audiobook, the narrative jumps between flashbacks and present day without any differentiation, while in the books italics and spacing is utilised to help with this
- Again, the audiobook was not as well narrated as I would have hoped. I ended up giving up on it and reading it instead.
However, only one of those things is a real problem – just don’t bother with the audiobook! And as for wanting to know more? I guess that it’s better than knowing too much! It shows that I became invested in the story, and that’s not a bad thing at all.
I definitely recommend this book. I give it a 4/5!