Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Book: Between Shades of Gray
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Publisher: Philomel Books
Release date: March 22, 2011
Source: Borrowed from library


Summary from Goodreads:

Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they’ve known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin’s orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions.

Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously–and at great risk–documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father’s prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives. Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.

From the very first sentence, this book grips you by the throat and doesn’t let go. I devoured this book in two sittings, staying up late into the night, furiously wiping away tears so I could finish. I was so thoroughly invested in Lina’s story that I had a hard time letting go.

Lina, along with her mother and brother, is ripped from her Lithuanian home by Soviet secret police late on a June evening in 1941. They are given 20 minutes to pack a bag before they are whisked away on trucks and herded onto train cars bound for Russia. From there, we follow Lina’s harrowing journey of survival by train to Russian and Siberian forced labor camps.

The book moves quickly thanks to short chapters, often punctuated by Lina’s memories of moments from a better time. These snippets give us a glimpse into the girl she was before she was taken. They serve as a jarring juxtaposition against her situation in the camps – starving, worked near to death, fighting disease and failing health. Her memories are those of any girl, and reminds us of her humanity and innocence.

Lina meets a number of people on the train and in the camps, and they all captivated me in different ways. Ruta Sepetys, who researched this book by visiting Lithuania and hearing survivors’ experiences, created such vivid characters despite their dire circumstances. I felt for each of them in different ways, much like the way they each process their situation. No one person reacted the same way to what was happening – we saw denial, fear, shock, outrage, defiance, and defeat. Nothing can prepare you for the gamut of emotions that Sepetys paints onto each page.

This is a gorgeous, haunting, and incredibly moving book. I highly recommend it, but be sure to keep some tissues handy.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system


8 thoughts on “Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

  1. I really enjoyed the new historical perspective I earned from this book in addition to the powerful emotions it elicited. Good news-Sepetys’ second book Out of the Easy is also fantastic!

    • Haunting is a great adjective to describe this one. I found it so hard to read, the brutality the ridiculous conditions, I just couldn’t believe this really happened to those poor people. I think you did a great job on your review of expressing how difficult all their struggles were. The strange part was, in the end I even felt something for the bad guy. How about you?

      • Gina, I had a hard time connecting with the guy at the end. We got hints that there was more to him than met the eye, but I never really felt an emotional pull to/for him. That said, it’s indicative of his reality – if he tries to help them or stick up for them, it’ll be him in the camps – so I also don’t hate him. I just feel nothing I guess. It is what it is.

  2. This book’s amazingness is the reason I’ve been so scared to read it. It’s a weird reason, I know, but that’s the only way I can describe my reason for not having read it yet!! Also, the fact that it will make me cry, lol. Great review, Logan! I might just put my big girl panties on and read this one sooner than later. 🙂

    • I had the exact same trepidation toward this book. The only reason I finally read it was because it was my book club’s selection this month. I think it’s an easier read than you expect, and it’s not all doom and gloom.

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