Book Review: Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys

In 1939, the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, emptying these Baltic states of all people considered anti-Soviet. Men, women, and children (particularly the educated and their families), were murdered, imprisoned, or deported to Siberia where they were enslaved. The deportees endured unspeakable atrocities, while under Stalin, the Soviets took over their countries. As World War II raged on and the Nazis’ Holocaust drew international attention, the Baltic nations disappeared from the map, taken over.

Between Shades of Gray is an historical fiction novel written about a fifteen-year old Lithuanian girl, Lina, who is deported with her mother and brother to Siberia, where she is enslaved for several years. Though the characters of this novel are fictional, Lina’s tale is not – it is rooted in the horrific experiences had by thousands. Separated from her homeland and her father, Lina is forced to fight for her life, refusing to give up her dignity while those around her succumb to the terrors of the long journey and the deplorable conditions of starvation, cruelty, and Arctic survival. A budding artist, Lina records her experiences through her drawings, hoping that they will eventually make her way to her father, and that he will find her and her family in northern Siberia. She clings to this hope despite facing every sort of abuse imaginable, wanting to document her experiences so the world can know the horrors she and her fellow Lithuanians faced under the Soviet regime.

I first came across this book through Facebook – a friend said she was reading it, and, seeing the title, I was shocked. I assumed that it was in the same family of books as others with “Shades of Gray” in the title! I Googled the title, and after reading about the subject matter of the book, ordered it from the library. At over three hundred pages, it took me only two days to read – it is definitely a page turner, and it is written at a young adult level. Because of the nature of some of the abuse Lina faced, I would be cautious about giving it to a young teenager to read.

This book intrigued me because I had never heard of anything happening to the Baltic nations during World War II. We often read books and watch movies about the Holocaust, but Between Shades of Gray opened my eyes to other atrocities that have gone largely unnoticed by the world. It made me think of the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, and how little I know about these tragedies. It made me wonder about what other atrocities have gone on and are going on in the world. If thousands of people could be deported without the world noticing, what are we failing to notice today? I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not really one for keeping up to date on current affairs and politics, but maybe this is something that needs to change. I could be praying into situations such as that which this book is based on; I could be educating myself about what has gone on in the world and continues to have physical and psychological effects on others.

The survivors of the deportation to Siberia spent ten to fifteen years as slaves; when they finally returned to their home countries, they had been occupied. The survivors’ homes, belongings and sometimes even their identities, had been taken from them. They were treated as criminals and made to live within restricted areas of their own nations, under constant supervision. It wasn’t until 1991 that the Baltic countries regained their freedom.

I hope that you will give Between Shades of Gray a read, and that as you read, you will ask God along with me how we can be praying for the unseen atrocities that are going on in our world.

* In the writing of this post, I have relied almost entirely upon the Epilogue of Between Shades of Gray for historical information. Ruta Sepys, the author of this book (including the epilogue) did a great deal of research for her novel, interviewing survivors of the deportation, and making trips to Lithuania. I trust her historical information. For more information, take a look at this video:

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