Thursday, June 16, 2011

Book Review: Between shades of gray, by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel Books, 2011)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Debut novelist Ruta Sepetys has written a heart-wrenching and riveting account of a little-known episode of recent history--the Soviet reign of terror in Lithuania from 1940-1953, when the Soviets arrested and deported more than 300,000 Lithuanians, sending them in cattle cars across Europe and Asia to forced labor camps and finally to nearly certain death in the forests of Siberia.

Our heroine is the 15-year old Lina, whose great excitement is her acceptance into a prestigious art school for the summer.  However, her upper-middle class life along with her hopes and dreams are shattered when the Soviet Secret Police storm into her house one night in 1941, arresting her along with her mother and younger brother.  Her university professor father had already been arrested and sent to a prison camp.  "They took me in my nightgown," her saga begins, told in spare prose that heightens the intrinsic drama of the narrative.  Their harrowing six-week journey in cattle cars, with little food and water, to an unknown destination recalls numerous Holocaust narratives.  Dead bodies, of which there are more daily, are thrown from the trains.  They finally arrive at their destination--a collective farm in Siberia where they all became beet farmers.  "I hated beets," remarks Lina.

Living in a small shack with very little food and plenty of work, Lina and her family fight despair and sickness, yet manage to celebrate Christmas with their countrymen, with everyone providing bits of food they had pilfered from the Russians.  Lina even begins to have a bit of a romance with another young prisoner.  But things are to get much worse for Lina and her family when they are transferred to a camp in the Arctic Circle, where they are forced to build dwellings for the Soviets out of bricks, furnished with good stoves and American canned food, while they must survive in huts built from driftwood and mud and tiny rations of bread.  Can Lina and her family survive the freezing storms and starvation?  Will they ever see their home in Lithuania again?

Like Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken (reviewed last month on this blog) and so many Holocaust memoirs and novels, this book is ultimately about the best and the worst humanity has to offer, a testament to the tremendous power of the human spirit to survive in the face of unimaginable horrors and hardship.  Despite the nightmares she endures, Lina wants desperately to survive, and makes herself and her brother repeat the mantra, "we're going home."

Sepetys' book, which debuted in March, landed on the New York Times bestseller list and has received glowing reviews in major newspapers around the country as well as starred reviews in Booklist, School Library Journal, Publisher's Weekly, and Kirkus.  While the book is being marketed in the U.S. as a young adult book, it is equally compelling for adult readers, and in fact,  in 16 of the 23 countries in which the book was sold, it is being released as an adult title, according to the Wall Street Journal.

A website for the book features a discussion guide for book club or classroom use.  This would be an excellent book to compare with The Diary of Anne Frank, and I hope it will find its way into high school curricula.  While it is certainly not a typical "light" summer read, its international setting makes it well suited for promotion during summer reading this year, for those libraries who are participating in the World Culture/Travel theme.


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Lock the doors, check the windows and get set for an intense, suspenseful read. Once hooked on the story, couldn't put it down.

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Beautifully written and deeply felt…an important book that deserves the widest possible readership.