Thursday, May 24, 2012

May Book Pick II -- Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I don't usually blurb YA unless it's on the borderline with MG. Furthermore, I usually highlight one book per month, but I'm in the happy situation of finding so many good novels lately that I might be posting on books more often, for a while at least. So here, I give you Between Shades of Gray, the 2012 SCBWI Golden Kite Award winner for fiction.

This is one of those rare "if you read only one novel this year, let it be this one" books. It is captivating from the first line, but early on I wondered if I'd be able to continue because the story is so very painful. However, it's also compelling and beautiful, and my memories of a college professor who escaped another Baltic state (Latvia) under similar circumstances invested me further in the story.

In 1941, sixteen-year-old Lina, her parents, and her little brother are abducted from their home in Lithuania by Russian soldiers, loaded aboard train cars (the father is separated from the others) and shipped to labor camps in Siberia during Stalin's period of "ethnic cleansing" of the annexed countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. One day, Lina is a normal teenager involved with friends, interested in boys, and passionate about her art, and the next, she is riding in a filthy, overcrowded boxcar where she'll spend miles and miles and weeks and weeks, eating little but gray gruel while many in the car sicken and die (their bodies tossed out along the route) -- and the journey to Siberia isn't even the bad part. When those who survive the trip arrive, already weak and malnourished, they are forced to farm beets in the extreme cold and snow, sleeping the few hours they're allowed to in rude cabins they themselves had to build. The story is told from Lina's point of view, alternating between the present and snippets of the past that contrast with and inform the main storyline. The supporting characters -- Mother, her brother, the boy Andrius with whom she has a prickly but growing relationship, and ones she knows only by certain traits such as "the bald man," and "the man who winds his watch" -- come to life and portray the array of possible reactions to these experiences, from defeatism and depravity to almost unbelievable kindness and determination to survive.

That people can go through such unspeakable events, survive, and go on to live reasonably well-adjusted lives is amazing and incredibly humbling. I sincerely doubt I could or would put up the necessary fight. Part of the reason Lina does, aside from her family, is her art, and her determination to use a series of pictures to get messages to her father, imprisoned elsewhere, that will tell him where to find them when -- surely it must be when, not if -- they are finally freed.

If Anne Frank's diary put a face on Holocaust victims for us, then Between Shades of Gray does the same on behalf of the people of the Baltic states, whose history is so similar but less known. When you pick up this book, be prepared to need to read it in as few sittings as possible, and have a box of tissues handy. My only caution is that it may be too intense for kids younger than high school age. Otherwise, I can't recommend it enough.

21 comments:

Jaye Robin Brown said...

We have a tiny YA section in our local grocery store book area and usually the offerings are drivel. But this is one I found there, bought, and loved. What a wonderful book and it really highlighted a part of history that is not often represented in children's lit.

Laura Pauling said...

Read it and totally loved it!

Vijaya said...

I really enjoyed this book -- simply told, without melodrama. My husband's family is half Swedish and half Lithuanian and although we know quite a bit about the Swedish relatives, we know next to nothing about the Lithuanian ones ... I have a feeling most of them were wiped out.

My son read this book when he was 12 and was surprised at the parallels between what happened in Germany and Lithuania. We talked about the book before he read it, during, and after, so I would recommend it for mature children.

Barbara Watson said...

I've heard nothing but great things about this book although this is the first I've read a detailed account of what it's about.

Separate note: On your recommendation I read Bluefish and was totally wow-ed!

cleemckenzie said...

I love this period of history she reveals in her novel. Glad it's getting so much attention.

Mirka Breen said...

I agree this is a masterpiece. I'm glad you picked it. I wish there were more such books because they are the sort I am so glad to have read long after.

Annie said...

I loved it! Achingly sad--a beautiful book.

Jennifer Rumberger said...

I won a signed copy of Between Shades of Gray, but still haven't read it yet. I soon will!

Marcia said...

Jaye -- Wow, so glad you found it there! Not only is it a wonderful book by any standard, but I think it shows writers what is meant by covering a familiar time in history in a fresh way.

Laura -- It's such a good demonstration of how to capture a reader with both the story and the writing.

Vijaya -- Yes, the subject matter provides the drama in spades. I think many probably don't realize that people other than the Jews were "cleansed."

Barbara -- Glad you liked BF. Yes, BSOF richly deserves the accolades.

Lee -- I think all of 20th century American history is my favorite.

Mirka -- Exactly. This is the type of book you remember for a lifetime.

Annie -- Achingly sad is so accurate.

Jennifer -- This is a book well worth owning your own copy of!

Christina Farley said...

I really need to read this book. It sounds amazing.

Andrea Mack said...

I loved this book, Marcia. It really haunted me afterward.

Faith E. Hough said...

I love this book so much. Besides its beauty of story and voice, it felt like a connection to my own Slavic ancestors who experienced the history for themselves.

Marcia said...

Christina -- It's one of those books you can't forget.

Andrea -- Yes, haunted is a good word.

Faith -- Yes, it's even more meaningful when it's your people. I do not know a single person who read this book who didn't love it.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I've heard the title before but didn't know what it was about. I was in Estonia the year after communism fell. I remember how bleak the place was. I'll have to add the book to my list.

Ruth Schiffmann said...

I had this in my hand at the library the other day, but my stack was getting pretty tall so I put it back on the shelf. I'll have to get it on my next trip. Thanks so much for the recommendation.

Medeia Sharif said...

I read this last year. I still remember it since it's such a powerful book.

Annie McMahon said...

I think I might be a little too fluffy for this book. Sounds interesting, though. Great review!

Oh, and I tagged you on my blog with 11 Questions. You're it!

http://dutchhillnews.blogspot.com/2012/05/11-questions.html

Lizann Flatt said...

I have this book waiting for me on my Kobo. Think I'll have to move it up the "to-read" pile with this review. Thanks for the nudge!

Marcia said...

Stina -- The book might have special meaning for you, then. Hope you like it.

Ruth -- LOL. My "eyes are bigger than my stomach" when it comes to checking out books too. But don't miss this one.

Medeia -- I agree; this is one that sticks with you.

Annie -- I too thought it might be too hard to read, but I'm glad I stuck with it. I'll visit you and see what those 11 questions are all about!

Lizann -- Yes, this book is worth a move-up! :)

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Bellevue Janitorial Services outfit said...

Wonderful review of this obviously very moving book. Definitely going on to my wishlist! Thanks for sharing.