Between Shades of Gray - by Ruta Sepetys
"I am forever touched by this story of love, hope, and endurance."
The world knows about Adolph Hitler's brutal holocaust of the Jews from the German and Polish lands. Yet, few people are aware of the equally inhumane deportation the people of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia suffered during the same time period in the hands of Joseph Stalin. The daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, author Ruta Sepetys brings light to the events through her novel, Between Shades of Gray.
The experience of a refugee is shared through the perspective of a fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl named Lina. It is the summer of 1941 and her life is turned upside down when the Soviet secret police NKVD walk into her house, barking orders to follow them out. Lina, her mom Elena, and her younger brother Jonas are allowed only twenty minutes to throw belongings into a suitcase with the thought that they won't be returning home for a long time. Only a few pages into the novel, I already began to engage myself with Lina. I could feel her overwhelming rush and panic and confusion as she tried to comprehend what was happening to her family, her life.
Sepetys describes the long and dreary deportation ride of thousands of Lithuanian families forcefully crowded into the train of container cars. Each person in the car, whether it was the bald man who collected stamps, the girl with the stuffed doll, or the young woman with a newborn, has a story of his own. Everyone has different circumstances and grievances, but they each bond through that sadness, slowly forming a fondness for one another, whether they show it or not. Seeing how all of the characters individually cope with the sudden change and cruelty made me get more interested in the book; I came to care not only for Lina, Elena, and Jonas, but also for their refugee mates.
The best part of reading the novel was accompanying Lina through her growth in character and thought as the novel progressed. An extraordinarily talented artist, she perseveres the hard conditions of the work camps by drawing sketches, through which she expresses the plight of her people. She hopes that they will help someone find her and the people and help them. It is her way of leaving a mark of what she and her people endure. Even though the situation of deportation has a hard, merciless, and cold-hearted border formed by the NKVD and Stalin, Lina learns to find the love and joy that are within the people.
All throughout the novel, love sustains the Lithuanian people. It gives them hope, and it is beautifully embodied in the relationship that develops between Lina and Andrius, a boy her age who is also deported. I was happy to see that they acted as hope for each other. There is so much to learn from them because they were grateful just to be together and they shared their love with their families and the other refugees as well. Only love allows these people to fight for survival instead of giving up completely.
I am disgusted with the NKVD. I am sad for Lina's family. I respect the people who didn't let the treatment they received convince them that their lives were worthless. I am inspired by the immense courage of Lina and the others. I am forever and permanently touched by the story of love, hope, and endurance that is Between Shades of Gray.