Thursday, March 17, 2011

Between Shades of Gray— a book review

If they came for you, what would you do?

Imagine you are preparing for bed, when the knock comes on your front door— not a knock, but the pounding of a heavy fist. Armed strangers who do not even speak your language burst into your home. They cannot be resisted— they are your new “police.” Within twenty minutes, you, your mother, and your little brother are forced from your home with only what you can carry in a single suitcase, bound for a destination you do not know, in a land you do not know, for a fate you do not know.

What would you do?

For the fifteen-year-old Lina, there is no time for heroics or grand adventure— there is merely time to grab a few clothes— even her precious art book must be left behind. Soon she and her family are in a truck crowded with frightened strangers, headed towards a bitter, brutal exile very few of them will survive.

A thriller? A science fiction novel of an apocalyptic future? No. Rather, this is the story of over 300,000 Lithuanian refugees, torn from their homes by Josef Stalin’s secret police (the NKVD, later to become the KGB) during the early years of World War II. Their crime? Being free.

Between Shades of Gray is the debut novel by author Ruta Sepetys. Born in Detroit, Michigan, Ruta is the daughter of Lithuanian refugees who escaped Stalin’s horrific conquest of their homeland and came to America as children. But others— including members of Ruta’s own family— were not so lucky. Hauled away in filthy cattle cars (with signs reading “Thieves and Prostitutes”), hundreds of thousands of teachers, doctors, and their families— including children and infants— were forced to eke out a living above the Arctic Circle, in Russia's dreaded Siberia. They were given no tools and no supplies except a few grams of stale bread each day, because while Stalin did not wish to explain their outright execution to the world, he did not want or expect them to survive. If they died on their own, well, that was just nature. (The women and children, that is. Most of the men he simply murdered.)

Based on true events, historical accounts and interviews with survivors, Between Shades of Gray uses fiction to put the reader into the lives of the Lithuanian deportees. The result is both beautiful and brutal, an incredible tale of survival, remembrance, perseverance and love. Though filled with cruelty and tragedy, Lina’s tale will call to you just as spring calls you back from winter. Once begun, you will not stop. Once finished, you will not forget. Read Between Shades of Gray, and journey to a land where hope replaces heartbreak, and love is the ultimate key to life.

For more about Between Shades of Gray, visit
Available in bookstores around the world (yes, including Lithuania), March 22, 2011.

--- Howard Shirley

P.S. Ruta is a very dear friend of mine, and it has been my delight to watch this book come into being. I know what she writes is from her heart, because I have seen her heart in the midst of the writing. But don’t just take my word for it— read her reviews:

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Booklist (starred review)

Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)

And those aren’t all. Get ready, this book is going to hit like a storm.

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