Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

I know it's only March, but I think we have here our first serious awards contender of 2011. If Between Shades of Gray were a movie, it would be a December-released prestige picture, an obvious ploy for an Oscar win, but one it would surely deserve.

Between Shades of GrayIt's 1941, and Lithuanian Lina leads a comfortable life. Her parents dote upon her and her younger brother, she has friends and family and crushes, and amazing skills with pencils and paintbrushes that are opening doors to her future education.

But that idyllic life comes crashing down around Lina late one night, when armed men break into the house and pull Lina, her mother and her brother from their beds without explanation.

And so begins Lina's journey - one that stretches thousands of miles, from the quiet suburbs of Lithuania into the frigid depths north of the Arctic circle, as Lina and her family become victims of Stalin's march in Lithuania and the Baltic states at the outbreak of World War II. Her only comforts are her family, her artwork, and her hope that her furtive sketches and notes will be passed hand to hand until they reach her father and he'll escape from wherever he's being held to come find his family.

Lina's and Lithuania's story was totally new to me. I vaguely knew that Stalin's Soviet Union wasn't a great place to be, but had no real idea about the elimination tactics that he used. It's horrifying to think that in some ways this man was our ally - and yet he was using the same tactics as Hitler. Sepetys does an amazing job portraying the dehumanizing tactics used by the NKVD (the predecessors of the KGB) - it's gut churning and horrifying.

Lina is an amazing artist and Sepetys uses her artistic eye to add some beautiful language to a story of hardship and terror. Lina doesn't draw strictly realistic - she's inspired by Munch - which gives Sepetys many opportunities for perfect metaphors, like the snakes crawling out from the neck of one particularly horrid guard's jacket.

I read this book over the course of just one day - and not even a weekend. Even when I had to take breaks, my mind was still in the book. At one point I paused to eat dinner with my husband, and I felt a bit of guilt sitting down to a full hot meal when part of my brain was still in Altai, the first camp Lina is sentenced to. And then when I could get back to reading and reached the end of the book I was crying - almost sobbing. And I don't easily cry at books.

While on the surface Lina's story isn't terribly different from any other fictional Holocaust account, I still feel it's an important contribution to the genre of WWII titles. The writing alone makes it worth a read, but it's also important to remember that in most any conflict there are indeed shades of gray - that even while we may call someone an ally, that doesn't make them (or even us) perfect examples of our ideals.

Reviewed from an ARC picked up at ALA Annual 2010. Between Shades of Gray is available today!
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