It is 1941. Joseph Stalin and the NKVD are purging the Baltic states. Lina and her mother and brother have been ripped from the home in the night, separated from her father. They are shoved into a train car with other Lithuanians who have somehow also managed to sin against the Soviets, including a woman who has just given birth and her newborn baby.
As their train hurtles across Lithuania and into China, Lina has no way of knowing where they will eventually stop, or if she will ever see her father again. She has no idea that it will be over a decade before she is allowed to go home again. She cannot yet know that, when that day comes, her home will no longer exist.
This is Lina's story.
Between Shades of Gray is the kind of book that has the power to transform lives. I literally cannot stop talking and thinking about it. I don't remember ever learning about the Baltic purges in school, and I hope that I was just not paying attention, because to not teach about this era in our world's history would be a travesty.
Ruta Sepetys' writing is absolutely stunning. She has taken one of the darkest eras in our history, and transformed it into a story that lives and breathes and begs to be read. Between Shades of Gray could easily have been written for adults - and indeed, it should be read by adults - but the main character, Lina, makes it wholly accessible for teens. Lina is an artist, a devotee of Munch, using her drawings as a means to try and contact her father. Lina is a warrior, vehement in her opinions, using her inner strength to stay alive. Lina is human, making mistakes, feeling every possible emotion, giving readers a character with whom they can connect.
All of Sepetys' characters were written with such detail, it felt like I was watching a movie, rather than reading words on a page. If I close my eyes, I can still easily see the bald man - one of my favorites, or Lina's mother - easily one of the strongest, most courageous women ever written into being. As I read, I could smell Andrius' cigarette, the stench of the garbage thrown at Lina and Jonas, and the icy crispness of the snow across the Siberian tundra. Reading Between Shades of Gray is an experience for all of the senses.
Reading this book will break your heart. But it will also make you think. What similar atrocities are happening in the world today? And what can we possibly do about them? And who will we tell Lina's story to? Because she may be fiction, but her story is based on truth, a truth that was hidden and kept secret for decades. A truth that the world needs to know about.
I will enthusiastically recommend Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys to everyone. Seriously. Every single person in the world should read this book.
"People I didn't know formed a circle around me, sheltering me from view. They escorted me back to our jurta, undetected. They didn't ask for anything. They were happy to help someone, to succeed at something, even if they weren't to benefit. We'd been trying to touch the sky from the bottom of the ocean. I realized that if we boosted one another, maybe we'd get a little closer."