Book Review: Between Shades of Gray, a YA Historical Novel by Ruth Sepetys
They took me in my nightgown.
Thinking back, the signs were there – family photos burned in the fireplace, Mother sewing her best silver and jewelry into the lining of her coat late at night, and Papa not returning from work. My younger brother, Jonas, was asking questions. I asked questions, too, but perhaps I refused to acknowledge the signs. Only later did I realize that Mother and Father intended we escape. We did not escape.
We were taken.
So begins Ruta Sepetys’ debut novel, Between Shades of Gray, published by Philomel Books in 2011 and now out in paperback. The YA novel imagines the story of fifteen-year-old Lina who is taken from her home in Lithuania in June of 1941 and shipped with her mother and younger brother to Siberia. They cross Europe in a cattle car, a journey that Sepetys describes with absolutely riveting and brutal detail. This is truly a page turner which is – amazingly — written by a first-time author inspired by her father, a Lithuanian refugee. But maybe that’s what passion for a subject can inspire.
Between 1940 and 1953, the Soviet regime imprisoned and deported over 300,000 Lithuanians to the forests of Siberia. They were a tiny fraction of the 20 million killed in the brutal cleansing of the Baltic region – certainly a little known chapter in 20th century history for young people, as well as adults. The book is now a best seller and it’s no surprise. Booklist calls it “an important book that deserves the widest possible readership” and The Minneapolis Star-Tribune says the novel is one “that everyone should read…[it] sings with truth.”
Readers of this blog know that my genre is historical fiction and I’m always on the look-out for well-written examples — adult, YA, middle grade, or picture book – and this is certainly one. I second Richard Peck’s belief that historical fiction is an important niche for writers to address since young readers are often sadly lacking in any sort of historical knowledge or perspective. And the cross-marketing of YA and adult novels is well deserved in this case, as in many others as Marielena Zuniga has detailed in an earlier entry to this blog.
Sepetys does lots of things right here. Her tightly written prose pushes the reader on and its very terseness underlines the urgency of Lina’s situation. The throughline of the novel is Lina’s clear talent as an artist which she uses to try to reconnect with her father who has been separated from the rest of the family at an unknown prison camp. Sepetys’ characters are fully fleshed and compassionately drawn. I also admire what she does with her early flashbacks to better times in Lina’s life. They come frequently in the early chapters of the book but less so as the tension mounts.
No wonder two of my favorite YA authors – Richard Peck and Laurie Halse Anderson – have strongly endorsed this book. I add my humble voice to their commendations.