If “They” came for you, what would you do?
That is the central question in the book our staff read last month for reader’s advisory training: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. There are so many issues within this book that it is hard to know where to begin.
Being a humorist, here is where I would inject the obvious joke about how Between Shades of Gray is being confused with Fifty Shades of Grey. But, to my surprise, I cannot. The solemnity of Sepetys’ book is so pervasive that it gets an exclusionary clause from any dumb jokes I can think of.
Why? Because Between Shades of Gray is about the day that “They” came to get the Vilkas family. The setting is World War II, the country is Lithuania, and the “They” is Stalin’s troops, moving into this country to create a buffer between themselves and the Nazis in Germany. Taking advantage of that situation, Stalin did a major job of ethnic cleansing in Lithuania and extended the same to Latvia and Estonia.
It is estimated that 20 million would die under the Soviet reign of Stalin and a part of it was the citizenry of Lithuania like the Vilkas family. Removed from their homes, put in cattle trains and shipped across the Russian landscape to Siberia where they were either incarcerated as war criminals or put to work as slave labor, people like the Vilkas family suffered for ten years before they were allowed to return to their former homeland in the 50s (when it was still under Soviet control!). The Baltic states would not achieve their freedom again until the revolts of the 1990s.
Authenticity is added to the story not only by the research that Sepetys did but from the fact that the story is based on the experiences of her own family. The endurance of these fictional characters in Between Shades of Gray can only lead to the speculation of what courage the real sufferers must have shown in the face of true evil.
The main character in Between Shades of Gray is a fifteen year old artist named Lina Vilkas. She is a powerful character who easily carries the weight of the story, injecting a sense of hope into a bleak tale. She is not perfect which makes her a wonderful person to dissect in a book discussion. The secondary characters in the book are magnificent. While representational of certain necessary things the author needed to bring into the story, they never descend into shallowness and at times rise to the point of creating such empathy in the reader that certain passages in the book becomes both memorable and painful at the same time.
The frozen landscape of Siberia is a major character as well and Sepetys has done an excellent job in presenting it as an integral part of the story. Soviet characters are multidimensional and in combination with the set become the ultimate evil yet have depths that adds to the discussability of the novel.
This book is categorized as a Young Adult novel, but I feel that libraries should shelve this title in the adult fiction section as well. Along with titles like Fahrenheit 451, The Diary of a Young Girl, Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies, Between Shades of Gray can teach so much to everyone about what happens when the systems we trust turn on us.