Synopsis: Lina Vilkas and her family were living happily in Lithuania at the start of WWII, but everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked—basically, the whole Baltic Region was annexed by the USSR and hundreds of innocent people were deported to Siberian gulags for supposed anti-Soviet activity. Lina expected to spend the summer of her fifteenth year at a prestigious art academy; instead, she’s stuffed into a train car with an irritating boy and dozens of random people. As she, her mother, and her brother toil away in the gulags, she sketches her pain on whatever paper she can get her hands on, etches her story into stolen planks of wood, and inks the truth into a handkerchief, hoping her art will somehow make its way to her father, who’s been sent to a different camp. In the meantime, Lina and her family must survive on hope if they are to ever go back home.
Is this a “must-read”?: Yeppers.
Why?: First of all, I had no idea this even happened. We all know about the atrocities Hitler committed during WWII, but somehow every single WWII lesson plan I’ve ever had missed the part where Stalin sent innocent people to the actual North Pole to work and freeze to death. (What the eff, IB education?) But besides riling my inner history dork (and getting me several funny looks from people who only saw the “shades of gray” part of the title), Between Shades of Gray drew me in way more than I ever expected. I’ve read quite a few YA historical fictions in my time, and most seem to focus so much on the history or the “moral of the story” that the actual storytelling part falls by wayside. With Between Shades of Gray, it doesn’t.
Lina and everyone around her either changes or we find out something new about them. It’s (as far as I know) historically accurate, but also has a plot. Even random Soviet Secret Police officers have depth of character. The descriptions were so well-written that I didn’t mind reading whole pages about what it feels like to be cold, starving, and lice-ridden. They were also so vivid that during one of the winter scenes I considered getting some hot chocolate to warm up, and then had to actively remind myself that it was 80 degrees outside. It’s that vivid. Still, she manages to mostly avoid the YA cliché of over-describing the crap out of everyone, instead using Lina’s artistic skill to tell us what people look like. Clever, Sepetys, very clever.
Not to mention that our protag, unlike your typical introverted, insecure, semi-loner brunette, is opinionated, confident, headstrong, and, get this, a blond! *Le gasp.* She also makes for an excellent narrator, drawing on her admiration of Edvard Munch (you may not have heard of him but trust me you’ve seen his work) and her artistic talent to come up with a clear picture of the world around her and to communicate this picture to others. According to the author’s note, Ruta Sepetys wrote Between Shades of Gray to give voice to those that had been silenced for years, and she does a stunning job. It’s a relatively simple story impeccably done, and I highly recommend it.
Next time: Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
Also: Here is a picture of the first two encouraging notes I shall be leaving in books I return to the library. In case you can't read them (blame grainy iPod photography), they say "have a great day" and "stay gold, whoever you are."
Post by dac213. Catch up on the rest of her series here!