11 November 2010

Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys

A young girl, her mother, and little brother are all taken by the Soviets, shoved into train cars for a six-week journey. It's 1941, and this is Lithuania.  It's a part of history that many don't speak of.

The History I Should Know About
Following WWI, the Baltic States (made up of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) were established as independent nations.  In 1939 however, Stalin and Hitler signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Agression Pact in which they agreed to not attack each other.  A part of this agreement also included which areas they would control in Europe, and Josef Stalin was given the Baltic States, and part of Poland. Citizens who were on "the list," anyone from writers, professors, military, doctors, etc., who were considered anti-Soviet, were carted off with their families -- men were sent to prisons and the women, youth, and elderly were sent to Siberia.  All were considered prisoners no matter what age they were, and they were sentenced for ten years or longer for having committed no crime.  Many don't know about the 20 million people that died during Stalin's reign.

Below is the video from the website for the book -- take a look.

Ruta Sepetys discusses her upcoming novel, Between Shades of Gray from Penguin Young Readers Group on Vimeo.

From the book's website:
Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth?  That morning, my brother's was worth a pocket watch.  
In 1941, fifteen-year-old Lina is preparing for art school, first dates, and all that summer has to offer. But one night, the Soviet secret police barge violently into her home, deporting her along with her mother and younger brother. They are being sent to Siberia. Lina's father has been separated from the family and sentenced to death in a prison camp. All is lost. 
Lina fights for her life, fearless, vowing that if she survives, she will honor her family, and the thousands like hers, by documenting their experiences in her art and writing.  She risks everything to use her art as messages, hoping they will make their way to her father's prison camp to let him know they are still alive.

Book Review
I spent the entire evening reading Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys.  Part of Philomel Books, a division of Penguin, Sepetys' debut is a Young Adult book scheduled for release in March 2011.  Incorporating true accounts and experiences from survivors, this fiction novel follows one girl, fifteen-year-old Lina, and her mother and younger brother through the aftermath of the Non-Agression Pact and Stalin's plans.

It's a frightening story.  With the NKVD guard watching, the transported Lithuanians were sentenced to work on a kolkhoz, a working farm, and sentenced for ten years and longer.  Farming for beets, digging holes, and only rationed 300 grams of bread per day, Lina and her family struggled to survive.  There is no medicine and no warmth during the cold Russian winters at their gulag.  Prisoners are starved, humiliated, and die.

Lina's artwork was always startlingly realistic for her age.  As several prisoners did based on true accounts that Sepetys gathered during her research, they documented tragedies through writing, drawing, and wood carvings.  Throughout Lina's "sentence" in the camps, she tries to draw as much as she can, atrocities forever etched on the scraps of paper she can find.

Fearful for what may happen, though, should they be caught, this evidence was destroyed or buried in the ground and never spoken about.  Even after they were released years later, survivors were still afraid of being charged with another crime and returning back to the prisons, so they kept their stories buried.

This is probably one of the best Young Adult books I've ever read.  It's an intense and tough subject matter of unspoken history, and the writing is both vividly descriptive and heart-wrenching, but also maintains the authenticity that this is told from a teenager's point of view.  Sections that struck me the hardest at times were those that recognized that even in the depths of sadness, there were moments of hope and love.

Mark your calendars for March 2011 -- this is a book you cannot pass up.  Ruta Sepetys' debut Young Adult novel has weaved in so many layers of history, family, and adolescence into one story of truth and hope that will never be forgotten.

About the Author
Born and raised in Michigan, Ruta Sepetys is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee.  The nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia disappeared from maps in 1941 and did not reappear until 1990.  As this is a story seldom told, Ruta wanted to give a voice to the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives during Stalin's cleansing of the Baltic region.  Ruta lives with her family in Tennessee.  Between Shades of Gray is her first novel.

Visit the author's site by clicking here.

FTC Disclosure:  I picked up this book during the SIBA Trade Show in Daytona Beach.

Happy Reading,
Coffee and a Book Chick


  1. Wow this book sounds powerful and well worth reading!

  2. there's so many things to say! first, i love how you start reviews of history type books with: the history i (we) should know. thereby making it super accessible and okay if we're not necessarily in the know.

    second, i am in awe of you! and how many books you read and finish and review (and research) and keep up a blog and a day job. really incredible! do you ever sleep? :)

  3. It sounds like a very intense but important book. You made strong case for reading it.

    And I have to say, I really like the cover art too.

  4. High praise indeed. i don't read much YA, but this sounds so good; thanks for the great review and heads-up.

  5. Sounds like a very moving book. I know so little about the Baltic States. Historical fiction is a genre I've always been drawn to, especially when the story takes me places that are difficult to go. I've noted the release date!

  6. I love the idea of a YA novel that will really teach young people about parts of history that are so overlooked.

  7. This sounds like an amazing book. And the cover is beautiful, it is what caught my eye.

    This is not an area of history I know much about, but probably should.

  8. Oh My I did not know about this at all. I will definitely look out for this book here. Great review and thanks you.

  9. This book looks amazing. I have my bachelors in social studies education and it always amazes me how some parts of history are skipped over so easily. (Like the Armenian Genocide, which I didn't discover until I picked up a fiction novel about it--I looked it up in my history book, for I was then in high school, and it wasn't in there in any way!) This book is definitely on my TBR list.

    On another note, I see you're reading Count of Monte Cristo right now. I hope you enjoy it. It's my #1 favorite book, despite it's length :)

  10. This book sounds like an interesting, important read but also one of those that you really have to be in the mood for and ready for. I find I'm in the mood for these heavy-hitting reads less and less these days.

  11. Oh my, this does sound like an incredibly powerful and meaningful read. I agree with the above poster who said that this is the kind of book that you have to steel yourself for. I would really like to read this book, and despite the fact that I don't read much YA, something about this book really intrigues me. Once again, you have outdone yourself with the review. I love all the extras you included, so thank you!

  12. I just finished reading The Postmistress and Russian Winter both of which encompass roughly the same time frame. They really peaked my interest to know more. Thank you for putting this on my radar.

  13. A great review. I'll be looking out for this one.

  14. You are such an awesome reviewer. I will definitely watch out for this book!

  15. I'll be looking out for this book. I'm really interested in Soviet history, as I studied it in school, so this is definitely one for me.


  16. I have this one on my wishlist. I can't wait to read it. I can't wait to get my hands on this one...

  17. Wow, this sounds absolutely fantastic, and about a part of the world I've rarely found any information about. It comes out in March you say?

  18. What a detailed review. The book sounds heartwrenching. I visited Poland a few years ago and it seemed so stark and foreboding as I imagine many of these countries are.
    Cozy In Texas

  19. Such a coincidence - I was just saying the other day that I need to learn more about Lithuania and the surrounding states at this period. I love looking at old globes that don't have all the current countries on them.

  20. this sounds like EXACTLY the type of book to read with my high school students! i can't wait to get my hands on a copy and see if i can use it in my classroom.

    your review of the book is powerful and really gives over the story and themes. thanks so much. :)

  21. I cried the first time I saw the trailer; I can't imagine how many tears I'd be wiping away when I read the book. It's been on my to-buy list from the very first! I'm thinking it will make it into my Christmas book box! (yes; I buy presents for myself ... and wrap them ... and tag them from Santa ... and put them under the tree)

    Julie @ Knitting and Sundries

  22. I am drawn to books about and surrounding WWII and am always amazed at how much there is I still don't know--about things that went on. I'll definitely have to look for this one. Thanks for another excellent review, Natalie!

  23. I've been dying to read this book because I'm of Lithuanian descent but I've been trying to wait until closer to release day, but you've convinced me that I need to go ahead and read it now!!

  24. This sounds like a powerful read and one that will stay with me for a long time after. I look forward to it making its debut and to having the opportunity to read it. Thank you for bringing this book and it's author to our attention.

  25. Wow, this sounds absolutely amazing. I can't believe I've only just heard about it - it's definately something I'd read! Thanks for letting me know about it; now I'm going to keep an eye out.
    Brilliant review!


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