At a time when teen fiction is dominated by vampires, werewolves and time travel, first-time author Ruta Sepetys has written a novel whose horrors are all too real.
Exposing the agonies endured by victims of Josef Stalin’s regime, Between Shades of Gray grips readers from the first page with its against-the-odds survival story. Teenager Lina and her family are forced by the Soviet secret police to leave their home in Lithuania in 1941 and travel in a miserable, crammed train car to labor camps in Siberia, on the verge of starvation. They eventually end up north of the Arctic Circle, where they endure hardships so extreme that readers will be shocked to learn this novel is rooted in historical events.
During an interview with BookPage, Sepetys explains that her connection to this atrocity is personal. Her grandfather was an officer in the Lithuanian army. He was on execution lists when the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania in 1939, so he and his wife and son fled to Austria, then Germany, and eventually settled in America. The family members they left behind were deported to work camps and imprisoned.
As Sepetys writes in her author’s note, Stalin was responsible for more than 20 million deaths—including more than a third of the population of Lithuania. But the story of the Baltic deportations is not a well-known part of history. During our conversation, Sepetys explains that, after World War II, people living in Soviet-occupied countries could not speak about Soviet crimes for fear of being punished.
“It’s as if the voice of an entire generation was swallowed,” Sepetys says. “The story sort of went dark and now the people that still have ties to it are in their late 80s. A whisper is left and we’re just about to lose it.”
On her first trip to Lithuania, as an adult, Sepetys met family members and asked to see old pictures. They had to tell her that they’d burned the photos when her grandfather fled—they couldn’t let anyone know they were related.
When she learned of this tragic history, Sepetys saw it as her responsibility to share the story with the world, and tell it as accurately as possible.
“My freedom and everything I have has cost me theirs. My freedom, in the U.S., because my father left, had cost them their freedom. And that’s very heavy, but it made me even more determined that I was going to do this.”
Her family warned that “the world just isn’t interested in this story,” but Sepetys refused to accept that advice. As it turns out, she was right. At the time of our interview, there had been 22 foreign sales of Between Shades of Gray, including one in Lithuania. “This is not about me at all; this is about their story and honoring the people and their experience,” she says.
Though she wanted to share Lithuania’s history, it was important that it be wrapped in fiction. When Sepetys talked to people about their experience during the Soviet occupation, many of her interview subjects had a condition.
“So many people told me, I’ll tell you what happened but you have to promise not to use my name. They were so terrified. Fifty years had passed but the pain was still so raw,” she says. “Fifty years had passed but their hands were still shaking when they spoke.”
Sepetys honored their wishes by drawing on their experiences to create memorable characters. The two who will probably stick with teen readers the most are Lina, the 15-year-old main character, and Andrius, a boy she meets on the long, harrowing train ride to Siberia and with whom she shares a budding romance. The plot centers on the remarkable survival story of Lina and her family as they are forced to travel to different labor camps in extreme conditions—including a camp that is literally at the North Pole.
Although Between Shades of Gray is Sepetys’ debut novel, she is no stranger to the creative process. She has worked in the music business for 20 years, currently as the owner of an artist management company based in Nashville. Besides her day job, she is hard at work on her second book—the story of a murder set in 1950s-era New Orleans.
Sepetys feels that she has found a home with historical fiction. “History holds secrets, and around every corner there is some little-known story,” she says. “Through studying mistakes from the past, hopefully we can learn from our mistakes and create hope for a more just future.”
This bitterly sad, fluidly written historical novel tackles a topic woefully underdiscussed in English-language children's fiction: Joseph Stalin's reign of terror. On June 14th, 1941, Soviet officers arrest 15-year-old Lina, her younger brother and her mother and deport them from Lithuania to Siberia. Their crammed-full boxcar is labeled, ludicrously, "Thieves and Prostitutes." They work at a frigid gulag for eight months—hungry, filthy and brutalized by Soviet officers—before being taken to the Siberian Arctic and left without shelter. Lina doesn't know the breadth of Stalin's mass deportations of Baltic citizens, but she hears scraps of discussion about politics and World War II. Cold, starvation, exhaustion and disease (scurvy, dysentery, typhus) claim countless victims. Lina sketches urgently, passing her drawings along to other deportees, hoping they'll reach Papa in a Soviet prison. Brief flashbacks, seamlessly interwoven, illuminate Lina's sweet old life in Kaunas like flashes of light, eventually helping to reveal why the repressive, deadly regime targeted this family. Sepetys' flowing prose gently carries readers through the crushing tragedy of this tale that needs telling. (maps, timeline, author's note) (Historical fiction. 12 & up, adult)Copyright Kirkus 2011 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Through the pained yet resilient narration of 15-year-old Lina, a gifted artist, this taut first novel tells the story of Lithuanians deported and sent to Siberian work camps by Stalin during WWII. From the start, Sepetys makes extensive use of foreshadowing to foster a palpable sense of danger, as soldiers wrench Lina's family from their home. The narrative skillfully conveys the deprivation and brutality of conditions, especially the cramped train ride, unrelenting hunger, fears about family members' safety, impossible choices, punishing weather, and constant threats facing Lina, her mother, and her younger brother. Flashbacks, triggered like blasts of memory by words and events, reveal Lina's life before and lay groundwork for the coming removal. Lina's romance with fellow captive Andrius builds slowly and believably, balancing some of the horror. A harrowing page-turner, made all the more so for its basis in historical fact, the novel illuminates the persecution suffered by Stalin's victims (20 million were killed), while presenting memorable characters who retain their will to survive even after more than a decade in exile. Ages 12-up. (Mar.)[Page ]. Copyright 2010 PWxyz LLC
Gr 8 Up--This novel is based on extensive research and inspired by the author's family background. Told by 15-year-old Lina, a Lithuanian teen with penetrating insight and vast artistic ability, it is a gruesome tale of the deportation of Lithuanians to Siberia starting in 1939. During her 12 years there, Lina, a strong, determined character, chronicles her experiences through writings and drawings. She willingly takes chances to communicate with her imprisoned father and to improve her family's existence in inhuman conditions. Desperation, fear, and the survival instinct motivate many of the characters to make difficult compromises. Andrius, who becomes Lina's love interest, watches as his mother prostitutes herself with the officers in order to gain food for her son and others. To ward off starvation, many sign untrue confessions of guilt as traitors, thereby accepting 25-year sentences. Those who refuse, like Lina, her younger brother, and their mother, live on meager bread rations given only for the physical work they are able to perform. This is a grim tale of suffering and death, but one that needs telling. Mention is made of some Lithuanians' collaboration with the Nazis, but for the most part the deportees were simply caught in a political web. Unrelenting sadness permeates this novel, but there are uplifting moments when the resilience of the human spirit and the capacity for compassion take over. This is a gripping story that gives young people a window into a shameful, but likely unfamiliar history.--Renee Steinberg, formerly at Fieldstone Middle School, Montvale, NJ[Page 170]. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.