Reviews for Between Shades of Gray

Booklist Reviews 2011 February #1
*Starred Review* Sepetys' first novel offers a harrowing and horrifying account of the forcible relocation of countless Lithuanians in the wake of the Russian invasion of their country in 1939. In the case of 16-year-old Lina, her mother, and her younger brother, this means deportation to a forced-labor camp in Siberia, where conditions are all too painfully similar to those of Nazi concentration camps. Lina's great hope is that somehow her father, who has already been arrested by the Soviet secret police, might find and rescue them. A gifted artist, she begins secretly creating pictures that can--she hopes--be surreptitiously sent to him in his own prison camp. Whether or not this will be possible, it is her art that will be her salvation, helping her to retain her identity, her dignity, and her increasingly tenuous hold on hope for the future. Many others are not so fortunate. Sepetys, the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, estimates that the Baltic States lost more than one-third of their populations during the Russian genocide. Though many continue to deny this happened, Sepetys' beautifully written and deeply felt novel proves the reality is otherwise. Hers is an important book that deserves the widest possible readership. Copyright 2011 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2011 April
Surviving in the face of terror

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.”

Copyright 2011 BookPage Reviews.

Horn Book Guide Reviews 2011 Fall
In 1941 Lithuania, the Soviet secret police show up at fifteen-year-old Lina Vilkas's home. They throw Lina, her younger brother, and their mother onto a train bound for Siberia, beginning a decade-long nightmare. Sepetys creates complicated characters in her story of deprivation and suffering. Two excellent maps and an informative author's note round out this haunting chronicle. Copyright 2011 Horn Book Guide Reviews.

Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2011 #3
In 1939, the Soviet Union annexed the Baltic nations, which then disappeared from maps, not to reappear until 1990. Teachers, librarians, musicians, artists, writers, business owners, doctors, lawyers, and servicemen were considered anti-Soviet and sent into exile. Esther Hautzig told this story in her seminal 1968 memoir The Endless Steppe; Sepetys's even starker novel is more extreme in its depiction of deprivation and suffering. When in June 1941 the Soviet secret police show up at fifteen-year-old Lina Vilkas's Lithuania home and throw Lina, her younger brother, and their mother onto a train, a decade-long nightmare begins. "Like matchsticks in a small box," forty-six people were crammed into their[Sat Aug 23 03:35:48 2014] Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\ line 249. car, "a cage on wheels, maybe a rolling coffin" bound for the vast nothingness of Siberia. So begins a human drama calling forth the best and worst of human behaviors -- courage, anger, fear, confusion, little kindnesses, and egregious selfishness. The bald man with the broken leg whines and complains, while the librarian organizes the children and tells stories, and all along the way Lina's mother keeps her family together. Sepetys creates complicated characters: there's more to the bald man than whining and complaining, and the young NKVD guard Nikolai proves not to be the monster Lina considers him. Two excellent maps and an informative author's note round out a haunting chronicle, demonstrating that even in the heart of darkness "love is the most powerful army." dean Schneider Copyright 2011 Horn Book Magazine Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2011 January #2

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.

Library Journal Reviews Newsletter
Every year, there are stories published about the Holocaust, but this may be the first for teens about the genocide that coincided it: the Soviet purge of the Baltic States. Beginning in 1941, this novel follows the story of Lina as her family is taken from their home in Lithuania and transported to a labor camp in Siberia. They are forced from one camp to another, each farther north, until they reach the brutal top of the world. The love of fellow prisoner Andrius gives Lina the will to survive the incredible conditions and return to their homeland over a decade later. The daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, Sepetys wrote this first novel to honor the 20 million killed by Stalin during his reign of terror. - "35 Going on 13" LJ Reviews 2/16/2012 (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Library Media Connection Reviews 2011 August/September
As this historical novel opens, Lina and her family are being forcibly removed from their Lithuanian home by the KGB, for unknown reasons. Taken without warning, the family is transported to workers' camps. In 1941, the Soviets deport teachers, preachers, criminals, and other innocents to forced-labor camps with harsh conditions similar to Nazi camps. Told in first person with "before captivity" flashbacks, Lina relays her fifteen-year-old perceptions. As their train stops, talented Lina leaves artwork that may give a clue about where her family has gone. Poignant and compassionate, this story reveals a strong sense of hope, survival, belief, and family. As Lina describes the pain, cold, and oppression, the reader feels them as well. In the final chapter, the reader sees that Lina has survived, married, returned to Lithuania, and left a legacy of buried journals and drawings. In this compelling first novel, Sepetys portrays an unexplored topic. Sepetys took trips to Lithuania to obta n first-hand knowledge of those who survived. This story will stay with the reader long after the book has been finished, and this novel should be on every high school library shelf. Judith M. Garner, Media Specialist, Rock Hill (South Carolina) High School. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED ¬ 2011 Linworth Publishing, Inc.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 2011 January #1

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.)

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School Library Journal Reviews 2011 March

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.

VOYA Reviews 2011 April
Up until the night the Russian military pounded on her door, fifteen-year-old Lina lived a nearly idyllic life. She had recently been accepted to a prestigious art school and was told she had a very promising future. Now, men speaking a strange language are telling her mother that the family is being deported from their Lithuanian homeland. Without knowing the precise whereabouts of their father, Lina, her mother, and brother soon find themselves packed into a cattle car with many other frightened countrymen. With the help of sixteen-year-old Andrius, Lina discovers her father is on the same train but bound for a different destination. She decides to document all she can in images so he can find them later. Unbeknownst to anyone, many would not survive this trip, and those that did would end up in Siberian labor camps. It was also under these circumstances that Lina and Andrius discover the true meaning of family, love, and loss. In the shadow of the Holocaust, many might be unfamiliar with Stalin's orchestrated genocide of the Baltic States. The first deportations began in 1941; many were unable to return to their homeland until the mid-1950s. Sepetys's father and many of her relatives were among those who either managed to escape into refugee camps or were deported or imprisoned. In her debut novel, Sepetys offers both a compelling love story and a well-researched historical chronicle. The themes throughout this novel are mature, and therefore the book is recommended for high school and above.--Judy Brink-Drescher 4Q 3P S Copyright 2011 Voya Reviews.