It grabbed my attention from the very first words, “They took me in my nightgown.” I remember wanting to choose a historical fiction book to read. However, I did not want just another book that ‘recalled the horrific tragedies that occurred during an important period in history.’ I wanted something more, something that gave color to a situation that seemed to appear in only black and white. Between Shades of Gray did that for me, it gave me endless hope when there seemed to be none.
Ruta Sepetys used her family’s history to bring light to experiences that were untold and hidden from the public sphere. Lina Vilkas is a fifteen-year-old, Lithuanian girl whose life drastically changes in 1941. She loves to write, paint and draw. Late one night, Soviet Officers approached their door with “an urgent booming.” In twenty minutes, they packed everything they possibly could and left all the comfortable, stress-free things about their lives behind. Separated from their father, and piled on cattle trains, Lina, her younger brother Jonas and her mother began the fight of their lives.
Lina, Jonas and her mother did not have time to process what had happened to them in 20 minutes. They were thrown into a mysterious, unknown world and forced to fight. After being thrown on a cattle train, they met phenomenal characters that will over time become like family. From the old grumpy Mr. Stalas who jumped from the train on the first day he was captured, to Andrius Arvydas, a handsome 17-year-old boy who epitomizes friendship and possibly even romance. On these cattle trains, they were mistreated. Food was scarce, illnesses lingered and the smells were sickening, but the occasional gasp of fresh air and sunshine was always something to look forward to.
“My feet were numb from the vibration of the floorboards. My head was curdled from the stench, and I itched terribly.” Lina was experiencing things in her life that were unheard of in mine. How can a 15-year-old girl be so resilient and strong? This was something I consistently asked myself and I think that’s what makes this book so captivating and encouraging for readers like myself. Her strength is contagious and everlasting.
Apart from the gripping story line that grabbed my attention from the very first line, Ruta Sepetys added light to a very dark situation using Lina’s past stories. As I read the book, Lina’s horrific encounters on her journey from Lithuania to Siberia was matched with similar but positive stories from her past. She was very determined to communicate with her father again and let him know that they were alive. Lina spoke of her untamed hair, uncleansed body and therefore her inability to avoid lice. I loved when Lina spoke about her itchy hair, and then how she described that when she was trying to paint her father’s “bright, blue eyes,” he couldn’t keep still because of an itch he had. I enjoyed this special moment and many other moments like this in the book because they showed me how Lina survived during these exasperating times in her life. I was able to see what Lina was thinking and how she used her past to get her through her struggles.
Lina used her handkerchief to communicate with her father. Each time there was light, she would add more detail and clues so that her father could recognize that it was her. She was hoping to pass the handkerchief along to her father. The handkerchief was Lina’s beautiful reminder that there was hope, and like the handkerchief, this book gave me hope. Although it did make me sad and most of the times it was emotionally difficult to read, this book was worth every smile, every awe and every tear. It not only taught me about the tragedies of World War II, but also I felt like I could experience that heart-rending and important period in history. For 336 pages, I was a part of something bigger than myself. I was a part of Lina’s life journey.
Reviewed by Lauren G. ’17 for Literature of the Millennium